Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Being a Tourist in NYC

This is the three of us making our way home from dinner at the end of day one in New York City! Do we look happy or what? I didn’t write yesterday at all, and that was because I was suffering from sheer exhaustion and we were all babbling about what we’d done during the day. We ended the day with dinner in a very nice restaurant (a tapas bar again but it wasn’t as good as the one we went to in Pittsburgh) We must have been fairly entertaining in our excited chatter as we ate at the bar....a patron AND the bartender kept buying us drinks and giving us special coffees. Thank you to Roy, the other customer, and to the bartender. We will never forget our time with you. We walked home down "Restaurant Row", stopped a total stranger and asked him to take pictures of us....and when we got to the hotel room....we crashed.

We planned to get up early today but even Linda (who is an insanely early riser) slept till 7:30 so we didn’t get out of our room till 8:30 this morning! Listen to me....like that’s late! But it is when there is so much to fit into so little time.

We started yesterday by going to Times Square and getting bus tickets to go on tours. These buses have no roof and they drive around through all the yellow cabs with a guide explaining the buildings and telling details about each famous building or store. It was incredibly interesting but cold. They are “Hop off Hop On” tours, which means they stop at designated places and you can get out and wander around for a bit and then get on another bus....they come by every 20 minutes. That ticket also includes free passes to get in to things like the art galleries, museums, Empire State Bldg etc. The passes are only good for two days though so we haven’t used them yet as we want to make the best use of them, and so far we didn’t have to pay to get into anything.

As soon as we had those tickets, we got on a bus and got started. We started with the “downtown” tour, which goes from Times Square and out through the different areas and past all the famous buildings. It winds through streets and is a great vantage point to see the city from. We drove past “Ground Zero” and the driver explained what that day was like. It isn’t a memorial at all. It’s a huge space in the middle of the financial district (which is all tall square modern buildings and very very upscale. I took pictures of the area from the bus, but at this point it looks like a major construction site with diggers and stuff behind the high solid fence. The tour guide said that the impact of those buildings coming down damaged buildings around them, and underneath as well.

I didn’t know it but the Federal Reserve of gold was in vaults under those two towers, and because it went down so far, they have to do major work to the ground to get it ready to put anything on after that. Really quite amazing. And I didn’t know either that the federal reserve is a pile of gold bricks that was intended to be backup financing for the country. When I asked why they don’t get it out and fix their economy I was told that it wasn’t enough anymore.....that they have printed so much paper money that has NO backup that they have even taken “legal tender” off the paper money and the gold just sits there because it wouldn’t even make a dent in the debt load. (The tour guide didn’t tell me that.....another passenger did when he heard me say to Angie that they should dig it out and use it instead of keeping it buried. )

Manhattan is an island. I didn’t know that either. And when I said earlier that they were “wasting” waterfront, I didn’t know either that the island wasn’t this big when the Dutch bought it from the natives for 60 guilders. They have brought stuff in and added land and the island is bigger now. In fact one tour guide said when we drove past a particular area that the waterfront was on this street during New York’s golden age, and has since been expanded and another burrough built on it!
It seems there is a lot of “gentrification” as the guides call it. Everywhere you go there are buildings wrapped in scaffolding and netting and they are being re-surfaced, updated or torn down. Some of the tour guides are older people who grew up in New York City and you can tell in their voices and the way they phrase things that they resent these changes. There is no “little Italy” anymore because Chinatown has encroached on it. Chinatown was somewhere we didn’t get off the bus. It is horrible and ...well...there’s no other word for it. And we really saw it too because last Thursday the “famous Hong Kong Market” burned to the ground. There is suspicion about it being a case of arson by another group of citizens is the way the guide put it. But the building apparently blew up, caught on fire, burned to the ground, and a tenement that was beside it fell into the ashes. You could see the top part of the tenement open to the sky, and there was a bent and broken bedstead on the pile of stuff being put into trucks to take it away. Because of all this, the bus had to detour from its regular route and I have to admit to feeling more secure up on top of a bus than I ever would on those streets.

From there we went past Central Park but we chose not to get off there as we want to take the time to walk in there and didn’t have enough time left to do that before the last bus would come by so we just watched it go by and stayed on the bus. In actuality, I have realized that with good shoes you could walk almost anywhere here as it’s actually only 2 ½ miles wide and I forget how long. But we wanted to squeeze in as much as we can with our three day bus passes and then spend Friday doing stuff we wanted to do and take the subway to it (like see Grand Central Station and walk in Central Park).

Another thing I learned is that “Times Square” isn’t just an open square. It is a square of streets and avenues that encompasses the theatre district, has a ton of junky souvenir shops, some very expensive brand name stores and some restaurants in it. The part we all see on TV at New Years Eve is just a little piece in the middle of it all and it’s being changed too. By the end of this year it will be all walking and sitting around space surrounded with theatres and HUGE billboards. There won’t be traffic going through it anymore, which is another thing the local people seem to resent and they call it the “Disneyfication” of Times Square.
And then there’s the billboards. They are unbelievably big. The tour guide pointed out the one for Budweiser and said that it costs FOUR MILLION dollars to rent that for a year. I nudged Linda and said “Now you know where all your money is going.” She laughed at that and agreed (it’s her brand)! Some of them are billboards as we all know them, just like along the highway etc., but even those are about 5 times as big as normal ones. And the rest are lit up and play films so they are constantly changing and moving. They are so big and there’s so many of them that it is like daylight in that area all night.