Somewhere between utopia and squalor lies the heart of Manhattan. Founded in 1683, the world’s towering financial centre squeezes a singularly diverse population of 1.6 million people onto 23 miles of skyscraper-stacked land, making it one of the most densely populated areas on the planet- about 72,000 souls per square mile.
Visiting should be chokingly claustrophobic. After all, I’ve just spent the previous week and a half in Nashville, where space is so awesomely abundant that the average road boasts five lanes. But as you ramble through the island’s neatly organised, filing-cabinet like network of Xth and Ynd streets, the rush of freedom is impossible to deny. Here, the air is as heavily laced with adrenaline as petroleum fumes.
We spent the weekend at a Holiday Inn at 36th street, right on the bustling hem of the Garment District, although judging by H&M’s enthusiasm for marketing their product by showing models wearing as little of it as achievable, it is possible that the Undergarment District would be a more appropriate (And cheekier- see what I did there?) title.
Having already agreed to try and experience every one of Manhattan’s cultural attractions in the next 48 hours, it was sort of fantastic that our window had an uncannily good view of the Empire State. A mist had glided in from the Hudson that night and the building’s main spire was wreathed in a blanket of vapour. I’ve never seen anything like it.
These neck-strainingly tall seem to testify that anything is possible. But as we trekked to Times Square, the urine splattered sidewalks offered a second opinion. I frequently saw people slumped on the curb. They would hold up cardboard placards outlining their misfortunes and pleading for help. Some would kneel down and clasp their hands, as if in desperate prayer. Why are there people on the streets when Macy’s, the self-proclaimed “World’s biggest store”, could house every single one of them? Call me naïve, but it’s difficult not be sickened when commerce takes precedence over charity.
Times Square is about as overwhelming a place as I’ve ever seen. It’s essentially a 24 hour carnival, complete with podgy Iron-Men masquerades, vibrant banners and shimmering video screens broadcasting breaking news and slick adverts for Budweiser. The crowds throbbed, heaved, pulsated , daring us to try and brave the scrum. Noticing it was getting late, we politely declined and retreated to the hotel. Being exposed to so much life really tires you out.
On day one we gawped at the Rockefeller building, home of the NBC television studios, and went rambling through Central Park, a communal backyard for the city’s apartment dwellers. There you can lounge on Sheep Meadow, a verdant field that encourages sport and prohibits dogwalking. People therefore feel safe to walk around barefoot, as if they were on a grassy beach.
Nearby looms the grimy chocolate façade of the Dakota Building. John Lennon was exiting the apartments when he was assassinated in 1980, but there is no bronzed acknowledgement of this tragic fact. His life is commemorated at Strawberry Fields, a peace garden that flourishes on the edge of Central Park. At the centre is a circular plaque inscribed with that immortally relevant rallying whisper, Imagine. It is far better to remember an artist for their values than the circumstances of their end.
I was a toddler when 9/11 happened and therefore learnt of the tragedy from archive footage and BBC documentaries . Of course, none of these bring the events into such gut-wrenching focus as walking across Ground Zero firsthand. The National September 11 Memorial is as precisely you would expect; reverent, calm and soberingly powerful.
Two gaping wells indicate where the towers once stood. Around them is a octagonal wall, built from polished bronze and engraved with the names of the attack’s victims. A few of the casualties have flowers or star-spangled banners gently inserted into their epitaphs.
I turned my gaze from the grave and up to the sky and saw the massive One World Trade Centre Tower, a beautifully sleek rebuke to the ideologies which extol mass-murder as a righteous act. Three more of a proportionate size are currently under construction.
Before I left, I also managed to make pilgrimage to the Tribeca fire station that appeared as the Ghostbusters headquarters in the original 1984 classic and has returned in the new reboot. Annoyingly, the building is tightly wrapped in scaffolding, likely so its renovation can be timed for new interest in the Ghostbusters brand.
However, to only describe Manhattan visually undersells what an experience it is. You can’t escape the sputtering growls of an engine block or the 24/7 rowdy honking of horns, nor the pungent gusts of warm food, burnt petrol and human refuse-Trust me when I say that Manhattan is a true nasal assault. Walk long enough across the repeating grey slabs of concrete and your tongue will begin to taste unbearably musty, like a damp blend of nicotine and steaming sausage. Walk even longer and your feet will hum with agony.
I honestly adored every millisecond if it. I have been immensely privileged these past few weeks and every new sensory discovery was something to be grateful for.
Our last day had a helluva busy itinerary. Before noon, we had taken the ferry to The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which from 1892 to 1958 was the gateway for 12 million aspirational immigrants. Strangely, it was only when I saw the Manhattan skyline from that distant point that I finally accepted that I had been to Manhattan, and had enjoyed it. It sometimes feels like being a rat in gigantic maze when you trudge around on street level. All you think about is the swiftest way to get from A to B. You rarely consider just how majestic your surroundings are until you are removed from them.
This never felt more breathtakingly evident than when we went to the top of the Rockefeller building, where the city opens up like a blossoming daisy in summertime. It’s unquestionably the best way to see NYC. Here’s the proof.
1. Any landmarks you lacked the gusto or interest to see, such as Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building or Harlem, are clearly visible.
2. It’s considerably cheaper than going up the Empire State. There it costs an adult- basically anyone who’s recently outgrown Mr.Men-$42 to enter the top floor, while the Rockfeller only charges $32 for a trip to their Top of the Rock Observation deck.
3. You can also actually see the Empire State, which is pretty much the jewel of the skyline anyway, so why would you want a holiday snap that omitted it?
4. It’s objectively impossible to take a poor photograph.
So much has happened during this little odyssey that it’s been difficult to write it all up. While my journey to America may have ended, I think there will still be some articles to come, at least if you want them. I will soon publish a jetlag diary charting my attempts to adjust to a normal time zone. But for the moment, I want to thank everyone who has followed and supported this series. Your help is the fuel that animates my mind and propels my keyboard.
If I’m honest, the most enjoyable thing I saw in Manhattan was a smoking sewer grate. Now that is some real Americana.