New York City is the largest and most famous city in the United States. With a population of more than 20 million people living in its greater metropolitan area, New York City can boast of the outsized role that it exerts over the rest of the country. The Wikipedia article for New York City states that it has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and has significant impact upon the nation's commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. It would be harder to come up with a list of the stuff that New York doesn't have much impact upon than to go through all of the areas where it's a major player. Maybe the country music and mountain-climbing industries?
Anyway, New York City is one of the places that everyone has to visit at some point in time in their life, full of famous tourist attractions funded by the philanthropy of the world's richest individuals. I had visited New York half a dozen times previously at different stages in my life, starting with an initial trip as a child of five or six that I can barely remember. My parents took my brother and me to the Bronx Zoo and the Empire State Building, along with a stop at the famous toy store FAO Schwartz which was our favorite part of the trip. I'd been back a number of times since then, visiting my brother a couple times when he lived in New York and worked on Wall Street as a financial analyst, with my most notable trip coming a bit earlier when I was an undergraduate in college. I was part of the University of Maryland marching band, and our group marched in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2000. That was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience, walking down Broadway through Times Square with literally millions of people watching the parade route along the way. The downsides were the need to get up extremely early (there's a walkthrough of the performances in front of the Macy's building at 3:00 AM) and the bitterly cold temperatures that we ended up getting on this visit in late November. The net result is that I'm very glad to have done the parade one time without any desire for a repeat performance.
This trip to New York City didn't line up with any major holidays. Instead, it was a work trip for my wife Liz, who was presenting at the Games For Change Festival held each summer in New York. Founded in 2004, Games For Change empowers game creators and social innovators to drive real-world change using educational games that help people to learn, improve their communities, and contribute to make the world a better place. Liz needed to spend three days in New York to take part in the conference and her job was paying for hotel accomodations in Manhattan. I joined Liz in New York for two days, spending mornings and evenings together and then using the daytime to explore the city. This was my chance to see some of the sights in New York that I hadn't experienced on previous trips, as well as revisit some classic favorites once again.
We took the Amtrak train from Washington DC's Union Station up to New York's Penn Station. This was within walking distance of our hotel in the Chelsea district of the city, and after checking in to unload our bags, the two of us set out to explore some of the surrounding attractions on this Sunday afternoon. We were able to walk half a dozen blocks to one of the most famous tourist destinations in New York City, the Empire State Building. This skyscraper was built in 1931 and stood as the tallest building in the world for almost 40 years thereafter. It was roughly the 30th tallest building at the time that this was written in 2019, but with a roof height of 1250 feet / 380 meters and a total height of 1454 feet / 443 meters tall including the antenna, it's still an impressive sight that can be seen for miles in every direction. Due to its Midtown location, the Empire State Building offers truly spectacular views of the rest of the city. These pictures were taken from the indoor observatory on the 86th floor. There's a higher observatory on the 102nd floor that's outside though, and that's where we were headed next.
The views were even better up here with no glass to obstruct our vision. Liz and I made a slow circuit around the four corners of the building, with the strong wind gusts up at the top whipping our hair around in every direction. The view to the south was probably the most impressive, with Downtown off in the distance and the even taller shape of the new One World Trade Center building rising up towards the heavens. The Statue of Liberty was barely visible off on Liberty Island in the harbor; we were able to zoom in on it with our camera's other lens and get a decent picture. Off to the east we could see the Williamsburg Bridge and the borough of Brooklyn on the other side of the river. Unfortunately the more famous Brooklyn Bridge was largely obscured from this position by other skyscrapers. To the north and northeast we had views of the the pointed Art Deco spire of the Chrysler Building, which held the title of world's tallest building for exactly one year in 1930 before the Empire State Building stole the honor away. The bland tower of the United Nations was also barely visible sitting along the banks of the East River. The one attraction that we couldn't see that well was Central Park, simply too many other skyscrapers in the way. There were even more new skyscrapers in the process of construction when we visited, as the New York skyline continued to be reinvented with each year.
We were fortunate to encounter no crowds on this visit to the Empire State Building. I can vividly recall waiting for well over an hour to take the elevator up to the observation deck on previous trips, and there were lengthy areas for lines to queue at the visitor's entrance down on the ground floor. We were able to skip out on all of this by visiting at a non-tourist time late on a Sunday afternoon. Travelers to New York City should be aware that many of the famous tourist attractions can get extremely crowded, and a lot of time can be saved by planning accordingly. (Also be aware that lots of these places can be expensive. If there's one knock that I had on the Empire State Building, it was the price: $40 per person to visit the observation deck in 2019. That was pretty steep.)
We walked north from the Empire State Building heading towards Times Square. Half a dozen blocks away was this pleasant little city park known as Bryant Park. It sits next to the New York City Public Library, which was closed already on this Sunday but where I would be stopping again the next day, and a large portion of the library's stacks are actually located underneath the park's grounds. The restoration of Bryant Park in the early 1990s is seen as one of the great success stories of New York's urban revival, with real estate in the nearby area now commanding absurdly expensive prices. This green space attracts thousands of people daily to exercise their dogs, to enjoy lunch outside, or simply to relax in the shade of its trees. Liz and I stopped to visit a store on the west side of Bryant Park named Kinokuniya New York, a Japanese retailer known for selling mostly books but also other products that can't normally be purchased outside of Japan. It was a little bit like visiting a piece of Tokyo in the middle of New York.
It was only a short distance from Bryant Park to Times Square, one of the iconic locations in New York City. Situated at the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, Times Square is a major commercial intersection, tourist destination, and entertainment center often popularly referred to as the "Crossroads of the World". This is the place where the New Year's Eve ball is dropped every year, and it's also located in the heart of the theatre district in New York. Times Square is always packed with people and covered with flashing advertisements on the surface of every building, with this trip being no exception. The only time that I have ever seen Times Square empty of people was a breakfast stopover at 5:00 AM on Thanksgiving Day with the aforementioned University of Maryland marching band. I actually don't like Times Square all that much, as the masses of people and the deafening noise can be a bit overwhelming. We only stopped here for a couple of minutes to take pictures and then headed off to get dinner.
This was the only dinner that Liz and I were able to eat together in New York City, as she was going to be attending a conference function the next day and then I was going to be taking the train home the day after that. We had seen that the Koreatown district of New York was located near our hotel, and we decided to get Korean barbeque as a special treat. I had never eaten Korean BBQ before and very much wanted to try it. We ordered the restaurant's two-person meal and it proved to be absolutely fantastic! The beef and the chicken were both cooked to perfection and served alongside the dozen other little side dishes that are common for Korean BBQ. It was an expensive meal to be sure but that was expected for dining in New York City. We had a wonderful time and went back to the hotel stuffed with food.
The following day was a Monday, the start of a new work week. This was a day where I would be off on my own as Liz had to attend the beginning of her work conference. I had meticulously planned out a route through New York with the goal of seeing as many attractions as possible, starting with a very early wakeup time at 5:00 AM. I wanted to be up with the sunrise to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at an hour when most people were still asleep. By all accounts that I'd read, this was the best time to see the Brooklyn Bridge and do the famous walk across to the other side. When I exited the hotel and headed towards Penn Station, I found that the streets already had a steady flow of traffic passing through them. New York City is busy enough that it never truly sleeps, and a lot of the unglorious maintenance work that keeps the city running takes place during the early hours of the morning. I hopped on the subway and rode the #3 line from Penn Station to the Clark Street stop in Brooklyn. The early morning sunlight was casting long shadows on the buildings in this borough, and there were few people out on the streets, mostly a handful of joggers getting in some exercise. I passed through Cadman Plaza Park and a nearby US district courthouse en route to the Brooklyn Bridge walking path entrance.
The pedestrian route that leads across the bridge has this unobtrusive start; if it weren't for the sign mentioning the Brooklyn Bridge, it would easy to mistake it for a random walking/biking path. It quickly turns into an elevated path however, with a busy highway passing by on either side. Yes, the pedestrian route across the Brooklyn Bridge actually runs through the center of the highway, with cars passing by on either side. Anyone walking the bridge also needs to beware of bikers, as half of the path is devoted to bikes and some of the people pedaling across the river fly past at high speeds. Since there are cars and buses driving by on both sides, it's also pretty noisy out on the Brooklyn Bridge. And there's really no way to leave the bridge if trouble would pop up, so anyone trying to walk the 1.5 mile / 2.5 kilometer length needs to be prepared to do the full thing.
But all of those detriments only matter so much, as the views from the bridge, especially in the early morning, are nothing less than incredible. As I crossed from east to west, the dazzling skyline of Manhattan spread out in front of me, with the skyscrapers illuminated by the rising sun at my back. This is why the ideal time to do the Brooklyn Bridge walk is in the early morning and the best direction is to go from east to west; there are also fewer joggers and bikers to contend with in the early morning. The bridge itself was a marvel of modern engineering, dating all the way back to 1883 and serving as one of the first modern suspension bridges to be built in the world. The bridge towers were constructed in neo-Gothic style and had considerably more architectural detail than a new bridge would have included. (The Brooklyn Bridge took 14 years to build and an incredible amount of manual labor went into its construction.) I was enormously pleased that I was able to take in this experience under such perfect conditions, wishing only that Liz had the opportunity to join me on this walk.
The western terminus of the Brooklyn Bridge conveniently landed me right at City Hall. This building dating from 1812 is the oldest city hall in the United States that still houses its original governmental functions, and this white structure with French Revival architecture is still where the mayor of New York City is based today. Visitors can take tours of the interior but they certainly weren't in operation at 6:00 AM as I was passing through. The rainbow flags on the City Hall building were a reflection of the fact that June was Pride Month, and this holiday was taken very seriously in New York City, the location of the Stonewall Riots in June 1969. I would see a number of similar rainbow designs throughout New York during this trip. The small park surrounding City Hall also included an installation of flowing water named the Jacob Wrey Mould Fountain. I stopped on the benches here for a few minutes to look at a map and catch my breath.
City Hall is located near the original northern edge of colonial New York. Wall Street is about half a dozen blocks away, and yes, the name originally referred to the location of the northern wall at the edge of the colonial settlement of New Amsterdam in the 17th century. This seems crazy today given how Wall Street is nearly at the southern tip of Manhattan, but the colonial version of the city was vastly smaller than today's gigantic metropole. Anyway, Wall Street is famous for being the centerpiece of the city's financial district, home to the New York Stock Exchange. New York City took over as the world's financial headquarters following World War I, eclipsing London's previous role during the 19th century, and ever since this spot has been ground zero for the world's wealthiest and largest corporations. Vast fortunes have been made and lost here with the frantic trading of stocks and other financial derivatives. It was about 6:45 AM when I visited and the financial district was just waking up and getting ready for the day's work. Note that the New York Stock Exchange building is not open to the public and there are no tours of the interior; visitors can only take pictures of the exterior as I did here.
A recent addition outside of the stock exchange is the Fearless Girl statue, which was originally placed to stare down the "Charging Bull" statue nearby but then moved here after the artist of the bull statue asked for it to be removed. The Fearless Girl has widely been viewed as a symbol of feminism and women's rights in the heavily male-dominated space of corporate finance, as well as a symbol of anticapitalist resistance. The fact that the statue was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors (SSGA), a large asset management company, only somewhat compromises this message. There's a wonderful juxtaposition between the small figure of the Fearless Girl and the massive form of the stock exchange rising above her on the other side of the street. Even if this thing was originally somewhat of an advertising publicity stunt, I still like it.
Right next to the New York Stock Exchange is the previous City Hall building for New York. Now known as Federal Hall, the civic building located here hosted a number of famous events during the 18th century revolutionary period. This was where the colonial Stamp Act Congress met to draft a message to King George III protesting "taxation without representation", and where Congress met from 1785-1789 under the Articles of Confederation. The steps of Federal Hall were the spot where George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States (Washington DC didn't exist yet), and the site is commemorated today by a statue of Washington that overlooks the stock exchange. Sadly this is not the same building in which those events took place; the old City Hall was demolished in 1812 and the current Greek Revival building that stands on this location was constructed in 1842. This was a serious mistake and it's a tragedy that the old City Hall building wasn't retained. This is another place where visitors can take tours during the day, but I wasn't too interested since this wasn't the original Federal Hall structure.
The entrance to Wall Street's financial district is a narrow passageway that's easy to miss; I initially walked past it without seeing it on this trip. A better marker of the entrance to Wall Street is Trinity Church, which is located on the other side of Broadway from the financial district. Trinity Church is one of the oldest churches in the city, with the original Trinity church dating back to 1696. The current structure is the third church to stand on this location, constructed in 1846 in Gothic Revival Style. The church is somewhat famous for being located so close to Wall Street, and some readers might recall that this was the underground location of the hidden treasure in the Nicholas Cage film National Treasure. Unfortunately Trinity Church was undergoing major construction at the time of my visit, and the church itself was completely closed to visitors. (Here's an image of the interior from Wikipedia that I didn't get to see.)
As a consolation prize I was able to walk through the accompanying cemetery grounds, where a number of New York's famous individuals from the colonial period are buried. The best known of this group is probably Alexander Hamilton, Washington's Secretary of the Treasury and unofficial Prime Minister who was shot and killed by Alexander Burr in their famous 1804 duel. Hamilton lived most of his life in New York City and it's fitting that he's buried mere steps away from the financial district. Robert Fulton also had a tombstone nearby, the famed inventor of the steamboat, and there were other Revolutionary War heroes like Horatio Gates and John Morin Scott buried here as well. This cemetery was essentially a who's who list of the famous people from late 18th and early 19th century New York City.
I continued my walk a few more blocks along Broadway towards the southern end of Manhattan. Everything was fortunately close together here in the oldest parts of the Downtown, the colonial past more evident here than elsewhere. The famous Charging Bull statue greeted me at the northern end of tiny Bowling Green park, a 7000 pound / 3200 kilogram statue of a larger-than-life bronze bull. Sculptor Arturo Di Modica literally dropped off the statue in front of the stock exchange from the back of a truck in 1989, quite illegally, and then drove off with no explanation. City authorities confiscated it and eventually decided to install the bull two blocks away in the Bowling Green, where it became a popular tourist attraction. The Charging Bull is widely seen as a symbol of the stock market and capitalism more generally, which has made it the subject of various protests over the years. I couldn't get too close to the bull because there was a surveyor doing some kind of work around it this morning.
At the southern tip of Manahatta lies an open expanse of park grounds known as the Battery. There's an obvious reason for this name: this was where batteries of guns were located to defend the harbor in earlier eras. Also commonly known as Battery Park, this area contains a carousel, pedestrian trails, and a number of monuments to veterans and explorers. The largest structure at the Battery is Castle Clinton National Monument, originally a defensive fortification constructed as part of the War of 1812. Castle Clinton was originally located on a tiny offshore island, which has now become part of Manhattan thanks to land reclamation. The "Clinton" name here has nothing to do with Bill or Hillary Clinton, but rather DeWitt Clinton who was Governor of New York in the early 19th century. Castle Clinton was later used as an exhibition hall and then as an immigration center; this was where immigrants arriving in New York City were sent before the construction of Ellis Island in the 1890s. Today Castle Clinton is administered by the National Park Service, and the structure is largely used as a visitor center for tourists arriving to see the Statue of Liberty. Visitors can purchase tickets here for the ferries that head out to Liberty Island, although it's a far better idea to get tickets online well ahead of time. I arrived at 7:45 AM and the line for the day was already starting to build up.
Visiting the Statue of Liberty has a few unique properties. The visit to the statue itself is technically free, but there's a payment required to take the ferry out to Liberty Island, with the ferries themselves run by a private company not associated with the National Park Service. Fortunately the cost is pretty inexpensive at about $20 per person in 2019, and the ticket covers the ferry ride itself plus entry to the Statue of Liberty plus entry to Ellis Island. There are three different tickets available for the statue itself. The "Crown" tickets are the most highly prized, the ones that allow visitors to go all the way up into the head of the statue. There are only 300 of these tickets available each day and they typically sell out six months ahead of time. The "Pedestal" tickets are the second tier of access, which allow entry into the museum located in the base of the statue. These are usually gone two to three weeks ahead of time. Unfortunately I was only able to purchase a general admission ticket, which grants entry to Liberty Island itself but nothing further. Liz's work wasn't able to confirm that she would be attending her conference until two weeks ahead of time, and that didn't give me enough advance notice to get the better Statue of Liberty tickets. If you're planning a visit here in advance, make sure to get your tickets online as soon as possible.
The first ferry of the day leaves at 8:30 AM and the line to board it opens at 8:00 AM. I made sure that I was part of that first group so that I could capture some views of the statue before anyone arrived on Liberty Island. I was able to climb up to the top deck of the ferry before it became too crowded, and I also made certain to snag a spot on the right (starboard) side. If you're boarding the ferry from Manhattan, the right side is the one that gets the best views of the Statue of Liberty. The ferries can get *VERY* crowded so make sure to secure a spot along the railings if you want to be able to see anything.
The ferry ride out to Liberty Island was a pleasure in its own right. I always love taking any kind of trip out over the water, even something as modest as a quick ferry ride like this one. The wind picked up as the boat slipped away from the shoreline, and I was treated to views of the towering skyline of Downtown Manhattan as it slowly steamed away. There were plenty of other boats out in the harbor, little pleasure craft and the much larger Staten Island Ferry shuttling its own passengers across the water, as well as a police helicopter that buzzed past overhead. The only thing marring the view was a series of stormclouds building off to the north beyond the skyscrapers. I was going to be outside for much of the day and was very much hoping that the weather wouldn't turn to rain.
Some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty come from the approaching ferries. The iconic monument stood alone on its pedestal this overcast morning, with the surrounding grounds feeling strangely empty since this was the very first ferry of the day. I was able to zoom in and capture some of the finer details of the statue, such as a rusting patch underneath the statue's right arm. I love the image of the statue captured from the far end of Liberty Island looking back towards Manhattan, with One World Trade Center rising up in the distance towards the clouds. The only downside was the ten minute wait to exit the ferry, as all of the people on the lower decks needed to clear out before I could disembark. It was worth it to be in a position to capture some of these images.
Most of the other tourists on the ferry headed straight for the Statue of Liberty itself after leaving the boat. I decided to zig in the opposite direction by stopping to check out the small museum on Liberty Island instead. This modest building is run by the National Park Service, separate from the museum in the statue's pedestal, and it provides some background history on the construction of the statue along with some of its many depictions in popular culture over the years. The formal name for the statue is Liberty Enlightening the World, designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and gifted to the United States in a ceremony that took place in 1886. Some of the alternate designs that were considered for the statue and its pedestal are on display in the museum, many of them even larger than the actual version that was produced. (There were serious difficulties raising the funds for the statue and some of the more grandiose ideas had to be scaled back.) The original torch is also on display in the museum, which was replaced when the statue underwent restoration for its centennial in 1986. It's in pretty good shape considering the wear and tear that it endured over a century out in the elements.
There isn't too much else on Liberty Island aside from the statue itself. A person could walk completely around the little island in ten minutes without hurrying, and the only other tourist attractions to be found are the requisite gift shop and cafe. I took the time to walk a circuit around the statue to take in a few more views, now with other tourists from the first ferry visible up on the pedestal. It was unclear if anyone had made it up to the glass windows in the crown yet; someday, I hope to be able to climb the stairs up there and see the view for myself. If nothing else, Liberty Island was a great vantage point to look out over the harbor, down to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in the south at the mouth of the Hudson, or closer across the river to the buildings in Manhattan. Just as we had seen the Statue of Liberty from the Empire State Building the day earlier, now I could see the reverse view from Liberty Island. Even if it was the classic tourist thing to do, I was still happy that I took the time to visit here.
The ferry boats make two stops before returning to their docks in Manhattan: first at Liberty Island and then second at nearby Ellis Island. I was honestly more interested in visiting the latter location since I had never been to Ellis Island before while I had seen the Statue of Liberty several times previously. Ellis Island famously was the nation's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 to 1954, processing approximately 12 million immigrants to the United States who arrived in New York City. After administering those millions of immigrants in the early 20th century, Ellis Island was shut down and sat abandoned for several decades before being restored in the 1980s and reopened as a museum in 1990. Ellis Island was a location with a personal connection for me; like tens of millions of other Americans, some of the ancestors on my father's side passed through Ellis Island when they arrived in the United States from Italy during the 1890s. Some of my great great grandparents probably stood in the big empty Registry Room pictured above, packed full of other recent arrivals, speaking little to no English and having no idea what was going on. If I'd been born into a different era, this easily could have been me.
The Ellis Island Immigrant Building is today an extensive museum that details how the immigration process worked in the early 20th century and what the experience was like for recent arrivals to the country. Overworked immigration employees had to make snap decisions about whether or not to allow immigrants into the country, and sometimes those decisions could be arbitrary and capricious. Fortunately there was a surprisingly robust system of appeals that allowed almost everyone entry into the country eventually if they were able to find friends or relatives who could vouch for them. I also enjoyed seeing the elaborate list of passports and currency from countries that didn't exist anymore like Austria-Hungary, as well as the detailed personal stories of elderly immigrants who came through Ellis Island as children and who were interviewed during the 1980s before they passed away. The museum also highlighted the ugly anti-immigrant backlash that swept through America in the 1920s, which eventually resulted in nearly all immigration coming to a halt for the next four decades. Much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric used in current day America is almost identical to what was in use a century ago, only directed at different groups of immigrants. Again, my ancestors were among the groups who were seen at the time as anti-American, accused of "Popery" and therefore disloyal to the nation. It's truly depressing that the same cycle of nativist panic seem to break out every generation or two.
There's a Family Immigration History Center attached to the museum on Ellis Island, where researchers will help look up your own family connections and see if any of them passed through Ellis Island. Appointments to work with the researchers have to be scheduled in advance, and I didn't know about this ahead of time or I would have stopped to find out more information about my own Soracoe and Chippino families. Related to this section of the museum was a small area that discussed the citizenship process and how immigrants become American citizens. This process is quite convoluted and expensive at the moment, and it could likely use some tweaks to streamline things a bit. I also took a few minutes to answer some questions from the Citizenship Test, and not to brag, but I did get them all correct. It's almost like I have a postgraduate degree in history.
I spent almost two hours exploring the museum collections at Ellis Island, then took a much less crowded ferry back to the Battery on Manhattan. The next attraction that I was due to visit for the day was the World Trade Center site and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. I had an advance ticket for a 12:30 PM entry to the museum, and it gets crowded enough that reserving a spot ahead of time is a good idea. The walk north from the Battery took me up Greenwich Street this time, with the enormous glass and steel figure of One World Trade Center drawing nearer with each step. It didn't take too long to reach the 9/11 Memorial grounds, the site of the former World Trade Center buildings destroyed in the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001. The memorial itself is striking for its simplicity: two 1-acre pools containing the largest man-made waterfalls in the United States that outline the footprints of the Twin Towers, symbolizing the loss of life and the physical void left by the attacks. The names of the 2983 victims of the terrorist attack are inscribed on 152 bronze parapets along the outside the memorial pools. The memorial was dedicated on the tenth anniversary of the attack in 2011, and each year on September 11th the waterfalls are lit up with enormous spotlights that project up into the air the outline of the fallen buildings. It is a beautiful and somber memorial to all of those who were killed in the terrorist plot.
I expected to see the two waterfalls at the 9/11 Memorial as well as the Ground Zero Musuem that I was about to visit next. What I was not expecting to find was a brand new mall complex located right next to the World Trade Center buildings. This commercial development was named the Oculus and it looked like some kind of futuristic spaceship that had landed in the middle of New York. The architectural design of tall white vertical segments was truly wild; the only thing that I could think to use as a point of comparison was the Memorial Chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The mall vendors were all located underground on four different connected levels, and the whole place was tied into New York's mass transit system with sparkling new subway and train connections. Everything about the Oculus was completely new, so much so that there were some sections that were still in the process of construction. For that matter, there was lots of new construction taking place in the blocks surrounding the World Trade Center as well, more office space going up and new apartments in the process of development. It was a testament to how the city had come roaring back in the face of the terrible destruction from two decades earlier. If it weren't for the memorial and the accompanying museum, there would be no way to tell what had happened.
However, there is indeed a museum dedicated to the memory of the September 11th attacks, and it's important that a museum exists to help future generations remember what took place. The National September 11 Museum opened in 2014 and it's been one of the most visited tourist attractions in New York City ever since. The place was packed when I visited on this occasion five years after it opened, with visitors allowed in on a time-sensitive basis to keep the museum from becoming too crowded. (Again, reserve your tickets online ahead of time to avoid waiting in line.) The museum is located entirely underground and takes visitors down into the shattered foundations of the World Trade Center buildings. The levee wall that keeps out the waters of the Hudson River is still here, which thankfully never ruptured during the attacks as it would have flooded much of Downtown Manhattan if it had given way. There are twisted and broken girders here left over from the collapse of the buildings, along with the heavily scarred "Survivor's Staircase" that allowed hundreds of people to escape certain death. More than 50,000 people worked in the World Trade Center on a daily basis, and amazingly about 95% of them managed to survive the attacks. This still left a horrific death toll but things could have been even worse.
Most of the bottom floor of the museum contains a permanent exhibit detailing the events that took place on 11 September 2001, with a bunch of artifacts from the World Trade Center and eyewitness accounts from those who were present. A lot of the materials on display are difficult to experience, and the museum asked visitors not to take any photographs. Most heartbreaking for me were the recorded calls from passengers and flight attendants on the doomed planes, ordinary men and women leaving voicemails for their loved ones trying to tell them not to worry, with their tone betraying their terror. Listening to these voices of these people was absolutely gut-wrenching. Another part of the museum contains a memorial wall with a photograph of nearly every single person killed in the 9/11 attacks. I didn't personally know anyone who was a victim, just a very distant family member of someone who had lived in the neighborhood where I grew up. I did find her name and picture on the wall and did my best to pay my respects.
I had just celebrated my 19th birthday two days earlier when the September 11th attacks took place in 2001. It was the very beginning of my sophomore year of college at the University of Maryland, and I missed seeing the attacks live on television because I was in class at the time. It was a Tuesday morning and I was sitting in a Tuesday/Thursday 9:00 AM class about the history of the Ottoman Empire; the professor was lecturing and showing a video about Suleiman the Magnificent that day. It might seem weird now but cell phones were not ubiquitous at the time; I didn't own one and neither did most of the other undergrad students. I sat through the whole 90 minute class with no idea what was happening and neither did anyone else in the room. It was a beautiful late summer day and I distinctly remember seeing hardly anyone walking around on campus afterwards, which I thought was strange at the time. By the time that I made it back to my dorm room and heard the news, both of the Twin Towers had already fallen. The word afterwards was that you could see the smoke trail created by the burning Pentagon building from the bleachers at the top of our football stadium in College Park, Maryland. It was a horrific and terrifying day, with no one having any idea what would happen next. I can only imagine that things were a million times worse for those in Downtown Manhattan.
One of the places where the recovery from the attacks could start to begin was this church known as St. Paul's Chapel. This is the oldest extant church in New York City, including a pew used by George Washington when he was the president and New York was the nation's capital. St. Paul's is also located only a single block away from the World Trade Center, and it miraculously came through the destruction unscathed - only single pane of glass was broken. With much of the surrounding area lying in ruins, St. Paul's was taken over by emergency workers and used as a first response center for the next nine months. Firefighters and first aid workers slept in the pews and distributed supplies to the survivors pulled from the wreckage. The church itself is a beautiful small building designed in the traditional Anglican form. There's a memorial in the back dedicated to the emergency responders who worked in the aftermath of the disaster:
There are pictures here of some of the heroes who were lost trying to save others, along with a sampling of the items left behind as memorials at the Ground Zero Site. It was quite small and felt a bit like a shrine to a group of modern saints hidden away in the back of the building. This Chapel of Remembrance ensures that the small St. Paul's church will always be known for something other than a visit from George Washington.
After I finished visiting the World Trade Center general vicinity, I grabbed a quick lunch at a place called Pronto Pizza right next to the Fulton Street Station subway stop. Their pizza was decent without being spectacular, although that may be due to the fact that the New York style of pizza is not my favorite. At this point I hopped onto the #5 subway line and rode north to Midtown, exiting at Grand Central Station on 42nd Street. This wasn't too far from where Liz and I had visited the Empire State Building the day before. Grand Central Terminal was a tourist attraction in its own right, with its Beaux-Arts design from the early 20th century earning it a place on the list of national historic landmarks. It was easy to see how the main concourse had earned the title of "grand" due to the high ceilings 125 feet (almost 40 meters) overhead. This is one of the largest and busiest train stations in the world, with more than 22 million people visiting annually and with 44 different platforms servicing 56 different track lines. It seems crazy to think that all of this is situated in the middle of Manhattan, with every single one of those rail lines located underground and even more new rail lines under construction. This place is a marvel of modern engineering quite aside from the impressive design of the main concourse.
It was a short walk of only two blocks from Grand Central Terminal over to the New York City Public Library. This was the same building that Liz and I had walked past the day before while passing through Bryant Park, and today I had the opportunity to go inside the stately library. Officially known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, this place serves as the headquarters for the massive New York City Public Library system, the second-largest library system in the world behind the Library of Congress in terms of the volume of collections. The building itself was constructed in 1911 using funds from a number of different famous philanthropist tycoons, including Andrew Carnegie and John Jacob Astor. This place looks more like a government building or a Greek temple than a public library, but it is indeed a circulating library where members of the public can check out books or make use of the reading rooms. The New York City Public Library is famous enough to have appeared in many different movies and television shows, perhaps most notably in the movie Ghostbusters where ghosts were supposedly haunting its stacks. (This was also where the unfortunate teenagers were holed up in the forgettable disaster film The Day After Tomorrow.) It draws a ton of visitors each year; there were over 4 million people coming annually as far back as the 1920s.
These are some pictures from different reading rooms located at the New York City Public Library. The largest of these was the Rose Main Reading Room situated up on the third floor of the building. It had a large open area with another high ceiling where researchers sat at horizontal desks reading or writing or typing away at their work. There was a constant flow of tourists coming and going through the entrance of the reading room to take pictures, and even though everyone was doing their best to remain quiet, I can't help but think that this would have been distracting. The Main Reading Room was accessed via the Blass Public Catalog Room, a smaller but similarly ornate chamber adjacent to the main room. These were the reading rooms that the public seemed to be visiting in the largest numbers; the nearby white-colored Salomon Room was much less crowded. This is apparently used by the library as an event space, and it largely featured a series of oil paintings that dated back to the colonial period. If I'd been visiting to do research, this is where I would have gone to get away from the tourist rush.
I've been fortunate enough to visit a bunch of different fancy libraries in my time, and the New York City Public Library was definitely up there as one of the more impressive ones. I think that the Prunksaal (State Hall) in Vienna's Hofburg Palace has been my favorite from an aesthetic perspective, with Washington's Library of Congress and the library in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum close behind. The Iowa State Capitol Law Library in Des Moines was also surprisingly beautiful as a darkhorse contender. I love visiting different libraries and hopefully I'll get the chance to see a bunch more of them.
The next attraction that I had on my list was a visit to the United Nations. It's easy to forget that the UN is located in New York City, as it is typically not one of the main tourist attractions that visitors come to see. This may be due to the awkward location of the UN buildings, which are situated along the East River away from any of the subway stops. Grand Central Terminal is the closest and it's a healthy six blocks away to the east, a walk of roughly ten minutes time. (The east-west blocks are significantly lengthier than the north-south blocks in New York.) I think that the United Nations also suffers from having an exceedingly boring design for its headquarters, with the Secretariat Building taking the shape of a bland modernist skyscraper and everything else low enough to the ground that they have no distinct profiles. The most interesting thing about the view from the front of the UN complex is the row of 190 flags of the member nations, and that's an exceedingly low bar to clear. If this place had some kind of crazy postmodernist architecture, I bet that a lot more people would come to visit. Perhaps the UN is trying to keep people away so that they can conduct their business in peace?
It also doesn't help that the United Nations insists on some excessively bureaucratic measures to visit its headquarters. Visitors have to go across the street to register ahead of time and have their photographs taken. I'm not entirely sure why this is necessary given that a second security search takes place upon entry into the complex; doing essentially the same thing twice feels silly. I had reserved a ticket for a tour, and the instructions online were very clear that visitors had to go through security a full hour before the tour took place. As a result, I made certain to arrive at 3:45 PM for my 4:45 PM tour, then found out that this was completely pointless as nothing happened over the next hour. There was hardly anyone at the UN complex and I could have showed up at 4:30 PM and made it inside with lots of time to spare. I killed some time by wandering around the lobby area where the tour groups gathered.
Hey, did you know that the United Nations has its own gift center? That felt a little weird to me, but visitors can purchase a whole bunch of different merchandise with the UN logo printed on it. The best part of the gift store was a little stand where visitors could purchase a flag of every country in the world, even some of the incredibly obscure ones like San Marino and Togo and the Federated States of Micronesia. There's actually both a gift center and a book store at the United Nations, the two of them with their own separate rooms. So I guess they aren't trying to keep people away after all then? The whole visitor setup felt like it was stuck several decades in the past and could use some modern updating.
Fortunately the tour of the United Nations was excellent once it actually took place. It lasted for about an hour and our friendly tour guide took the group around to all of the different locations that a visitor would want to see. This started with the room where the UN Security Council meets, the body that holds most of the decision-making power of the United Nations. The Security Council is comprised of 15 member nations, 5 permanent members made up of the victors of World War II (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China) along with 10 rotating seats of non-permanent members. At the time of my visit, Kuwait held the presidency as one of the non-permanent members on the council. The Security Council has frequently been crippled due to the fact that all five permanent members hold veto power on resolutions that get passed, which caused nothing much to happen during the Cold War and which allows the pet peeves of individual permanent members to block otherwise internationally popular resolutions (such as US support for Israel continuing to stop UN recognition of Palestine as a state). However, when non-ideological issues pop up, the Security Council has been able to carry out some impressive work over the decades, especially in the realm of humanitarian aid. The Security Council chamber itself was designed by the Norwegian architect Arnstein Arneberg and was a gift from Norway. There was no one present late on this Monday afternoon and the tour group was able to take as many pictures as we wanted.
The other room pictured was the home of the significantly less famous UN Economic and Social Council. This group serves as the central forum for discussing international economic and social issues, and formulates policy recommendations addressed to member states and the United Nations. This is one of the UN groups that works with non-governmental organizations to focus on resource management and human development, one of the areas where the United Nations has done some of its best work. This is not particularly exciting stuff (one of the groups that they work with on a consistent basis is the International Bauxite Association) but it does help to make life better for some of the world's poorest people. The meeting room was furnished by Sweden and left with an unfinished roof to symbolize that the work of the UN would never be completed.
The last major stop on the tour took place in the UN General Assembly hall. This is the one United Nations council in which every nation is represented, which is the reason why it has by far the largest meeting room. Each nation has the same identical voting power, which is one of those things that sounds great in theory but doesn't actually work in practice. As Wikipedia notes, the one state = one vote power structure potentially allows states comprising just five percent of the world population to pass a resolution by a two-thirds vote. However, the resolutions passed by the General Assembly do not have any binding force over the member nations, which makes the whole thing more symbolic than having real-world meaning. The value of the General Assembly has therefore been to serve as a forum for debate and discussion. The resolutions themselves don't particularly matter, but having a place where every country can bring up issues for discussion is worth something. The General Assembly also includes reserved seats for a number of the world's major international organizations, like the International Olympic Committee and the Red Cross. I snapped a picture of some of the more obscure ones like the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (represented by Aquaman?) Unfortunately the design of the General Assembly hall was less interesting than the smaller council rooms, a dreary brown functionalist setup that looked to have been unchanged since the 1950s. The whole United Nations felt like it would benefit from a makeover session.
After finishing up with the United Nations tour, I had to walk back to the west to return to the rest of the tourist attractions in Midtown. By veering to the north a couple of blocks until hitting 50th Street, I was able to reach the most famous religious landmark in New York City: St. Patrick's Cathedral. This is a Catholic church that serves as the headquarters for the Archbishop of New York, and it was constructed over a period of several decades in the late 19th century until reaching final completion in 1910. The style at St. Patrick's was pure Gothic in nature, containing all of the classic elements (two rows of stone pillars running down the center and holding up a high vaulted ceiling with stained glass windows running along the walls) aside from exterior flying butresses. Modern building materials make the flying butresses unnecessary from a structural perspective and there likely wasn't room to fit them into the Manhattan neighborhood. Whereas lots of Gothic cathedrals in Europe have some kind of local variation to the standard design, St. Patrick's was a perfectly unchanged version of the Gothic setup. This made sense to me: St. Patrick's wasn't an actual medieval cathedral so it tried to make up for this by being a perfect imitation of one.
I should be clear that I'm not trying to mock the cathedral or denigrate it. St. Patrick's Cathedral was a beautiful encapsulation of Gothic design, with the stonework feeling light and delicate as it does in the most successful versions of this architectural form. The stained glass windows were particularly gorgeous as they caught the fading evening light off to the west. St. Patrick's Cathedral is also the largest completed Gothic-style cathedral in North America, stretching 332 feet / 101 meters long by 175 feet / 53 meters wide. There was a major restoration of the cathedral that took place from 2012-2015 and the structure looked to be in excellent condition at the time of my visit. There were relatively few people here on this Monday evening and it was a great time to explore the place. Definitely a must-see for anyone who has an interest in religious architecture as I do.
You always learn new things when traveling, and here's something that surprised me: apparently Rockefeller Center is literally across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral. I'm sure that this is obvious to New Yorkers but it's something that I'd never heard previously, and it's also a little bizarre that one of America's largest broadcast centers is right next to a transplanted medieval Gothic cathedral. Rockefeller Center is technically a complex of more than a dozen different commercial buildings, however it's known to the public for hosting NBC Studios, particularly Radio City Music Hall. This is the place where Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show (the Jimmy Fallon version at least) are broadcast, and the name came into wider popular use thanks to the NBC comedy 30 Rock. The Lower Plaza is the annual site where the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is situated each year, and the submerged area below it next to the Prometheus statue is used as a skating rink during the winter. Here in the summer, it had been converted into seating for an outdoor restaurant. This whole area is only a few blocks away from Times Square, and it's a major shopping area in addition to its use for broadcast television.
Speaking of shopping areas, Nintendo has their own store located right next to Rockefeller Center. I believe that Nintendo formerly had a store located on Broadway itself before moving to this location, as the place was smaller than what I remembered seeing on a prior visit to New York. Nevertheless it was a fun store to visit for a few minutes, with everything from old retro console games to Pokemon stuffed animals to about a billion different products with Mario and Zelda branding on them. They do need to update their Link statue in the store at some point, which is still in Twilight Princess garb instead of the more recent Breath of the Wild. This was an awesome place to visit if you grew up playing Nintendo titles as I did.
I had one more destination to visit before the night was finished. I had booked tickets to visit the observatory at the top of One World Trade Center, the skyscaper built to replace the fallen Twin Towers. My ticket was scheduled for 8:30 PM, which I had chosen because there simply wasn't enough time to visit the observatory and still make it over to the United Nations in time for that tour. (And then I'd ended up wasting an hour twiddling my thumbs at the UN doing nothing, which could have been used at the World Trade Center to avoid the need to come back - argh!) Anyway, after riding the subway back to Downtown once again, I found that the World Trade Center site had emptied out of visitors during the intervening hours. This made sense since the 9/11 Museum had closed for the night, and there was hardly anyone walking around the two memorial waterfalls. They were quiet and peaceful now, waiting silently for the next batch of visitors to arrive. I intended to get dinner in the Oculus since I figured it had to have a food court, but nope, it was new enough that there were hardly any places to eat inside. I ended up getting some fast food over by the Fulton Street subway station, which was connected to the Oculus by more underground tunnels. Then I headed over to One World Trade Center for the trip up to the observatory level.
My hope had been to make it up to the top while the sun was still setting for some dazzling pictures. I ended up being slightly too late for that to happen, but I did manage to arrive before darkness had fully settled, in the twilight period immediately after the sun has set. Part of the reason why it took longer to reach the observatory was due to delays on the part of the One World Trade Observatory setup, which first had the expected line to reach the elevators, then insisted on showing a short video to the incoming tourists, then had a further demonstration advertising a tablet that visitors could rent for $15. The whole thing came off feeling a bit like interacting with a cheaper car salesperson, constant attempts to upsell the experience and extract more money that I found offputting. I just wanted to look out the windows at the views, not buy five different products, OK? I was also disappointed to find that there was no way to go outside at One World Observatory as there was at the Empire State Building, only look through the glass at the surrounding sights. This was pretty disappointing given that One World Observatory only opened to the public in 2015.
The views from the observatory were excellent, of course, and it was interesting to get a different perspective in terms of both geographic location and time of day as compared to the Empire State Building. I could retrace most of my steps from this long day of sightseeing from high above. There was the Brooklyn Bridge that I had walked across early the same morning, and there were the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island out on their small patches of land in the harbor. Directly below was the Oculus and the two waterfalls of the 9/11 Memorial (ignoring the glare off of the windows in the picture above). I could also look to the north where the skyscrapers disappeared for a bit before returning with the Empire State Building in Midtown, or glance across the Hudson to the smaller collection of skyscapers over in New Jersey. There were some surprisingly nice baseball fields down there by the river, which according to Google Maps were the Battery Park City Ball Fields.
One World Trade Center's observatory is located 1,254 feet / 382 meters above the ground, with the total building height (including antenna) coming out at 1,776 feet / 541 meters in a reference to the American Revolution's date. This was the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere at the time of writing in 2019 and the sixth-tallest in the world. Despite the newness of One World Trade Center, my general advice for anyone reading this would be to visit the Empire State Building instead. There's more to see from Midtown as compared to Downtown (a lot of the immediate surroundings of One World Trade Center are just the waters of the harbor) and the ability to go outside at the Empire State Building makes it a more visceral experience. Obviously anyone who might have a fear of heights or prefers to remain indoors will likely be happier at One World Trade Center, which would be good to keep in mind. It was approaching 10:00 PM by the time that I made it back to our hotel that night, exhausted after 17 consecutive hours of sightseeing with almost no rest along the way. I slept like a rock.
I was up again early the next morning, if not nearly so early as the previous day. This time I had set my alarm for 7:00 AM with the goal of walking the High Line before it was time to get breakfast with Liz and a number of her work colleagues at 9:00 AM. The High Line is a 1.5 mile / 2.4 kilometer elevated trail created on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the west side of Manhattan. This was a recently developed reclamation project when I visited, with the initial section opening in 2009 and some of the later sections still under construction in 2019. The High Line runs from roughly 11th Street up to 34th Street, winding its way through the Chelsea neighborhood of New York before coming to its end by the Javits Convention Center. It has become one of the most popular walking routes in the city and attracts more than five million visitors annually. Unfortunately for me, the poor weather that had held off on the previous day had turned into a steady downpour, the sort of rain that lasts for the whole day and leaves everything soaked. This forced me to cut my visit to the High Line short, and I only ended up seeing the small portion of it that runs from 27th Street to 34th Street. It was a strange and highly entertaining experience from the small portion that I saw, with the pathway seemingly floating in midair amid lots of trendy apartment buildings. I would love to come back when it wasn't raining cats and dogs to walk the full distance.
We had breakfast at a place called Hu Kitchen on 5th Avenue. The place described itself as a "veggie-oriented gluten free eatery" that specialized in food meeting the criteria of the "paleo" diet trend. I'm not a fan of the organic movement and this place was a little bit too flaky for my tastes.
After breakfast was over, Liz had to head off to her work event while I said goodbye and went back to do more sightseeing. I caught the #1 train line and rode it all the way up to 125th Street at the western edge of New York's Harlem neighborhood. I continued further west for another block or two until reaching the park that runs along the Hudson River. This is where General Grant National Memorial is located, the place popularly known as Grant's Tomb. This domed Neoclassical structure is a mausoleum that holds the final resting place for Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and 18th president of the United States. The design is based upon the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which Civilization fans will recognize as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and Grant's Tomb inside was modeled after Napoleon's sarcophagus at Les Invalides in Paris.
There was a point in time after the Grant National Memorial was opened to the public in 1897 when it was more popular than the Statue of Liberty, drawing millions of Civil War veterans annually who came to pay their respects to their commander. All of those individuals are long since dead now, and with the Civil War having receded back into the distant pages of the history books, the Grant National Memorial has been largely forgotten today. It doesn't help that the National Park Service uses bizarre visiting hours for this place: it's closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the mausoleum is only open on the other days during even-numbered hours from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. With this being a Tuesday I knew ahead of time that I wouldn't be able to go inside, but I still wanted to honor the memory of one of the people who did the most to save the Union. The plaza outside was otherwise deserted, devoid of anything other than the falling rain and a light summer breeze.
Located on the other side of the street from the Grant National Memorial is this large cathedral known as the Riverside Church. This church was conceived by industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. (the son of the original Rockefeller who founded Standard Oil), intended for use as a focal point of global and national activism since it was first constructed in 1930. The Riverside Church is an interdenominational place of worship, and has been better known for hosting different radical figures than for its theology. Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu, Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela have all spoken at the Riverside Church over the previous nine decades. Rockefeller's inspiration for the Riverside Church came from the incredible Chartres Cathedral in France, and this place can lay claim to the title of the tallest church in the United States. The central bell tower is essentially a skyscraper in its own right, rising 392 feet / 120 meters above the ground level. I tried to go up to the top (the elevator inside the church has 20 different floors!) but that required joining a tour group, and there were none scheduled any time soon when I visited.
The design of the church's interior was another very standard Gothic setup, with the familiar stone pillars and vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows. There was a clear reason for the Riverside Church to use this architectural style, of course, since Rockefeller apparently wanted it to look like Chartres Cathedral, one of the most famous Gothic designs in the world. The Riverside Church was notably smaller than St. Patrick's Cathedral from the day before, lacking a true transept to give the place the standard cruciform floor layout. This didn't take anything away from the stained glass, however, which was as beautiful as ever. There was exactly one other person in the Riverside Church when I visited on this Tuesday morning, and he left after a few minutes. I was able to stand in this big open space by myself, taking in the religious artwork and listening to the soft patter of raindrops falling outside. It was a lovely moment.
Another attraction located in the same area was Columbia University, home to one of the eight schools that make up the Ivy League. Established in 1754, Columbia is the oldest institution of higher education in New York and the fifth-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. It was originally named King's College before making a name swap following the American Revolution, and the location of the campus shifted from its original grounds in Lower Manhattan to its current spot along 116th Street in 1896. (This used to confuse me; I couldn't understand how Alexander Hamilton could have attended Columbia given that the present location was nothing but farmland during the colonial period. Now it makes sense.) Columbia is one of the wealthiest and most prestigious universities in the world, with dozens and dozens of Nobel prize winners associated with its faculty members. I was surprised to see how small the campus was in person, comprising no more than half a dozen blocks in total. This was the exact opposite of the massive, sprawling campuses that I had experienced when visiting a bunch of Big Ten schools on my Great American Roadtrip the year before. Space is at a bit more of a premium in Manhattan as compared to Iowa City or Lincoln, Nebraska.
These pictures include the Library of Columbia University, which is deceptively the main administrative building and not a library at all. The university was apparently so crammed for space that there were faculty members using the upper floors of the huge antechamber as their offices, with laptops and shelves of books set up below the formal marble statues. Even in the Ivy League the teachers sometimes have a rough time. The building with the classical pillars and a bunch of Greek names at the top was Butler Library, the actual library on campus. I tried to go inside and was denied entry because I lacked a Columbia ID card. I also tried to visit the university church, St. Paul's Chapel, only to find that it was under heavy construction inside. In fact, the whole campus quad was undergoing lots of construction and looked like a bit of a mess. This is very normal for colleges and universities, which use the summer for maintenance work to get ready for the next crop of students in the fall.
I also stopped in the Columbia bookstore, where they get credit for having a quote from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a Columbia alum) prominently displayed at the entrance. As usual, the bookstore had the Columbia name and colors slapped onto anything that someone might want to buy. Liz dislikes Columbia because she earned her doctorate at rival Cornell University, another member of the Ivy League. If it makes her feel better, Columbia has been an absolute doormat when it comes to athletics, routinely getting pasted in the major sports even by the other schools in the Ivy League. During one particularly notable stretch in the 1980s, Columbia lost 44 football games in a row. The most famous Columbia football player was Sid Luckman, who retired from the NFL in, ummm, 1950. Meanwhile, in men's basketball Columbia has won the Ivy League only one time in the last 50 years. Apparently Columbia is dominant in fencing and rowing though, which should pretty much tell you everything you need to know about the kind of students that end up enrolling. There's a lot of old money tied up in Columbia.
Also near the Columbia University grounds was another grand religious building, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Construction on this church began in 1892 and continues today, as it is still an unfinished work of religious architecture. The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is a truly gigantic structure, the largest church in the United States and fifth-largest in the world according to Wikipedia. The denomination is Anglican (Episcopal in the USA), and there's some dispute as to whether this church or Liverpool Cathedral is the largest Anglican church. Either way Saint John the Divine was truly massive, with a length of 600 feet / 183 meters and a width of 232 feet / 70 meters. This place was honestly much bigger than it needed to be, and the western portion near the main entrance was basically empty for the first 200 or so feet. I don't understand the reason for putting the main nave of the church more than a full football field away from the entrance. Some of this space was being used to display artwork and I understand that a number of concerts are held here because of the impressive acoustics. Still, it felt like it would have been better to design the church with more reasonable dimensions and not have the construction drag out over 120+ years as a result. Maybe the idea was to imitate the medieval tradition of cathedrals taking centuries to build, I don't know.
Saint John the Divine had a mashup of two different forms of cathedral architecture. The main entrance had some Romanesque features and that was the original design style intended for the cathedral. However, twenty years after construction started, the design was switched over to Gothic Revival and most of the cathedral reflects this style. That was three for three on major cathedrals picking Gothic designs on this trip to New York, only here at Saint John the Divine the pillars holding up the ceiling were ludicrously oversized and I could barely see from one end of the cathedral to the other. This place did have the standard cruciform design, including a transept, a full choir, and then additional smaller chapels behind the main altar. Unlike the other cathedrals that I visited, Saint John the Divine did charge an admission price for entry, albeit a modest sum of $10. I assume that the money was going towards the continued construction, which was very much taking place when I visited. There was a major fire here in 2001 and that only pushed back the finishing date for the cathedral that much further. Overall, this was a novel place to visit due to the sheer size of the cathedral. I can't say it was one of my favorites though, as everything felt needlessly big to no real purpose.
Ever since eating breakfast, the weather outside had tailed off to a light rain that could mostly be ignored. When I exited Saint John the Divine, however, I found that the rain had picked up again and returned to a heavy downpour. This made the next part of my sightseeing rather unpleasant, as I walked about a dozen blocks to the north and entered the Harlem district of New York. Harlem achieved fame in the early 20th century for the "Harlem Renaissance", an outpouring of artistic and cultural creativity from its largely African-American residents. The neighborhood later became associated with crime and fell on hard times in the second half of the 20th century, before undergoing gentrification and a revival in the 21st century. I made my way to 125th Street, the central business district for the neighborhood where most of its tourist attractions are located. This included the famed Apollo Theatre, known for broadcasting the live show Showtime at the Apollo for decades and introducing up-and-coming talents from the African American community. The Apollo Theatre dates back to 1934 and has been part of the National Register of Historic Places since the 1980s. I was able to take a quick peek inside but hadn't arranged to join one of the tours of the building. It was unfortunate that it was raining hard enough that I didn't get a particularly great view.
I had walked back up to Harlem even though it involved walk back in the opposite direction because I thought it would be a good place to get lunch. I made my way to the Red Rooster restaurant, a popular comfort food eatery with creative cooking from celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. I wanted to try some of the traditional Southern-inspired food associated with the African American community and the Red Rooster was listed as one of the best places to visit. I ended up order the "yardbird", this restaurant's version of fried chicken, and it was just as delicious as I'd been hoping. The chicken was moist and crispy and just a little bit sweet, wonderful to eat and highly recommended. It was worth the three block walk through the rain back to the 125th Street subway station afterwards.
My original plan at this point had been to take the subway south to Central Park and spend about an hour wandering around on the paths, then wrap up the day by visiting either the American Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both of which are located along the edges of the park. The continued downpour outside made this an unappealing option though, as I was already pretty soaked by this point. I decided that I would head straight to the museums instead, and it made far more sense to visit the American Museum of Natural History due to its geographic location. I could take a subway down the A, B, or C line directly to the museum as opposed to needing to walk across the entire park to reach the Met. Therefore it would be the natural history museum on this occasion, and I'd have to return on another trip to see the art collections in the Met.
The American Museum of Natural History was quite crowded despite the weather. There was a line outside the building that took about ten minutes to get through the entrance, and then there was a second and longer line inside for the actual tickets to the museum itself. Fortunately there was a sign mentioning that tickets could be purchased online, and I was able to buy my ticket electronically and then skip the second line entirely. It's nice to have smartphones available! I quickly realized that the museum was vast in size and that I could easily spend all day exploring it. The American Museum of Natural History is the largest natural history museum in the world, with its complex comprising 28 interconnected buildings housing 45 permanent exhibition halls in addition to a planetarium and a library. There are more than 33 million specimens held in its collections and over five million people visit annually. I decided to start on the ground floor and work my way upwards, which was going to take some time given the five different floors in the museum. This portion of the museum held mostly earth science and geology-based information, including a section about space. The most interesting stuff here was probably the meteorites on display.
One of the centerpieces of the museum was a series of dioramas of different mammals from various part of the world. There were different sections for the mammals of North America, Africa, and Asia, although the whole section on Asian mammals was shut down for rennovation when I visited. Most of these dioramas date back to the 1940s and they are therefore somewhat dated, even if they've been updated periodically to remain scientifically accurate. And yet even though these are ultimately stuffed versions of animals, they look so realistic that they still hold up quite well today. The life-sized versions of the animals combined with some beautiful background paintings really did make it feel like they could step out of the glass and come to life. (This was basically the plot of the Night At The Museum series of movies.) I spent more time looking at these dioramas and their helpful accompanying descriptions than I expected.
These were some of the same dioramas created for the African mammals and for various different reptiles. The room with the African mammals had the lights turned down for some reason, making it quite dark inside. I was impressed that my camera was able to capture the place as well as it did. The reptile attraction was drawing a lot of visitors because they had to walk through it to get to a special exhibit on Tyrannosaurus Rex, which required an extra payment to see. I don't know if the special exhibit was any good, I had enough stuff to see at the museum already.
The human collections at the museum were more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the section on early hominids was excellent, tracing through some of humanity's early ancestors and putting together modern reconstructions of what these hominids may have looked like. That part of the museum looked to have been recently updated and was very well designed. On the other hand, there were some parts of the museum that were clearly much older that sought to highlight various different non-Western cultures, and at times it veered a bit into uncomfortable territory. I don't want to get into the whole cultural appropriation issue here, but let's just say that having a paper-mache version of a person in traditional Persian or Indian attire isn't a great look when it's situated just down the hall from dioramas of large mammals. I get the sense that the museum is trying its best here, and the actual artifacts on display are fascinating. I think these areas could be updated and come off looking a lot better.
And then of course there were the prehistoric skeletons on display, both extinct early mammals and the famous dinosaur skeletons. The American Museum of Natural History is specifically known for its fossil collections, and today it houses the largest collection of fossil mammals and dinosaurs in the world. Only a tiny number of the bones are on display to the public, but you'd never known that since practically the whole fourth floor is given over to the dinosaurs. This is the area where children always want to visit, and even though I left it until the end of my visit when the museum was getting ready to close, it was still the most crowded place that I experienced. There had to be close to 50 skeletons on display in three different exhibition rooms, all of them with helpful text descriptions that went into more details on the individual specimen. I had thought about becoming a palentologist at one point when I was young, and this area of the museum helped to bring out the inner child in me.
I didn't leave the museum until it closed at 5:00 PM, and that meant that it was time to hurry down to Penn Station to catch my return train back to Washington DC. I grabbed dinner at a pizza place in the station and then fortunately managed to find the Amtrak train with no problems. Penn Station doesn't announce which track will be hosting each train until 10 minutes before it arrives so travelers should be warned that they need to pay close attention to avoid missing their ride. Unlike the packed train that Liz and I had rode on the way up, this Tuesday evening train was only about a third full and I was able to relax on the three hour ride. There was even a gorgeous sunset off to the west while passing through New Jersey, which unfortunately gave way to a steady rain afterwards.
Overall, I was highly pleased with the amount of different attractions that I was able to pack into 2.5 days spent in New York City. I was able to visit the top destinations on my personal list, in the form of the 9/11 Memorial and the United Nations, plus visit a good cross-section of the most popular spots in Downtown and Midtown Manhattan. Given additional time (and better weather), I would have liked to see more of the High Line and explore Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I also still need to visit the newish stadiums of the Yankees and the Mets; I visited the old Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium but haven't seen a game at their newer fields yet. Or maybe Liz and I will have a chance to catch a Broadway show, something that we talked about doing but didn't have enough advance time to reserve tickets. One way or another, I'm sure that we'll be back again at some later date. As always, thanks for reading.