City break New York
Autumn in New York:
many beautiful days
and bright fall colors
Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit New York City, because then it's most obvious how green large parts of the city are. New York is not just a metropolis with high rises, it is also a city with space for walking or bicycling. In this travelogue we explore Riverside Park along the Hudson River, Central Park, the Upper West Side of Manhattan and a small part of Brooklyn. Exploring the city, you notice its diversity, if only because of the different kinds of food sold in supermarkets.
Travelogue & photos: Manja Ressler
On the weekends, New Yorkers bicycle along the Hudson
After many years the bike path, which eventually is supposed to go all the way around Manhattan island, is almost ready on the west side, where the Hudson flows. We walk north from Midtown.
The city looks different from the edge; looking east, you see the Empire State Building, which is the tallest building again since the attack on the Twin Towers. Looking west, you see New Jersey and the beautiful George Washington Bridge to the north.
Just when you have decided that New Jersey is too ugly for words, you are far enough north to change your mind: at some point, the buildings stop and there is a view of the Palissades, a park situated on high cliffs above the river.
But before you get there, your attention will be completely drawn to the part of the park that was just finished: a former railyard where cargo used to be transferred from boats to trains and vice versa.
Behind the park are many extremely ugly and expensive apartment buildings, built over the last five or so years by Donald Trump (who else?). But the good news is that the city of New York required him to pay for this railroad-themed park, designed by the Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf, who also designed Battery Park and who is involved in the design of a new park on the former elevated railway between 12th and 34th streets, the so-called High Line.
Back to Riverside Park: the part where we are now, is an industrial landmark, integrated in the design of the park in a creative and very esthetic way. For starters: the plants are mainly decorative grass species, which fit the railway embankment character of the place..
There are rusting towers and steel constructions in the river; the contours of a former, dismantled pier are indicated by metal walkways (in this part you are not allowed to bicycle), combined with some remains of the original pier, which makes it look like an archeological site.
Farther north there are two options: stay on the path along the Hudson, or climb a little to an older and beautifully planted park, which is partly maintained by people from this neighborhood. The leaves on the trees have the most incredible colors in this season: red, orange and yellow.
On a beautiful day, like today, it's wonderful to walk along the river. New York has a kind of mediterranean climate. This means that even in October and November it can still be warm and sunny. A New York friend even told me that he walked around in shorts on one New Year's Eve!
Many New Yorkers use this path on the weekends to go bicycling. Biking is more recreation than transportation here and this is noticable. New York bicyclist have no clue about traffic rules (probably no clue that there are such things for bikers) and often are too clumsy to get out of the way in time. Still, it's fun to watch all those people bicycle, run and skate in their little free time.
Still farther north, above 100th street, it gets quieter. At 131st Street is Fairway, a gigantic supermarket underneath an elevated highway and the best place in town for fresh vegetables and fruit: other supermarkets often have old and dry stuff which is still expensive.
Nevertheless it's interesting to walk into a supermarket to see what they carry. This often mirrors the neighborhood you're in: in the poorer districts supermarkets hardly offer vegetables and fruit, in wealthy neighborhoods like the Upper West Side (where I am staying with a friend) the aisles are overloaded with delicacies.
When we reach Fairway, a pleasant surprise awaits us: the last missing part of the bike/foot path is ready. Instead of Fairway's parking lot, there is a nice little park, where you can sit in the sun after shopping there.
Still farhter north is Washington Heights, an immigrant district with mainly Central and South American inhabitants. People play soccer here in the many fields along the river that are reserved for sports, in contrast with the areas to the south, where baseball is played.
Everywhere there are subtle and not so subtle indications of the surrounding cultures: in this part of the park, people have outdoor barbecues accompanied by pleasant Latin-American music.
And then we arrive at the George Washington Bridge, the final destination of this walk. If you hadn't noticed before, you'll see here how huge everything is in this city. Despite its elegance, the bridge is a behemoth.
The George Washington Bridge is an iron suspension bridge which connects Manhattan with New Yersey. It is one of the busiest bridges in the world, which is not surprising if you know that it's the only bridge on the west side of the city. There are two tunnels to New Jersey as well, but these are much farther south.
On the way back we take Broadway, the main artery that runs from downtown all the way up to the Bronx, over 20 kilometers long. The numbers go into the thousands. It's a busy street in terms of traffic, three lanes in both directions with a planted strip in the middle.
But Broadway is also an interesting street with stores of all kinds and sizes, Columbia University, one of the most famous universities of America, many restaurants (among which Tom's Restaurant on Broadway and 112th Street, a location on the famous comedy series Seinfeld), stalls with second-hand books, home-made jewelry and clothes.
And of course there are - like everywhere in New York - homeless people who politely ask for money. Even though it's impossible to always give, it's good to keep in mind that these are people who often still had jobs a few months ago.
This country hardly has a social safety net: lose your job and you'll lose your home as well within two months or so, because you won't be able to pay the rent or the mortgage. You will also meet many Vietnam veterans who are begging, the government doesn't really take care of them either.
In the middle of this crazy city, you feel as if you're in the country
It's a beautiful day again and I have to run an errand on the Upper East Side; a wonderful excuse for a walk in Central Park. This amazing landscape park was was layed out in the nineteenth century between 60th and 110th streets, exactly at the center of the island, almost like a barrier between the east and west sides.
The Upper East Side is traditionally the territory of the WASPs, rich White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, an elite that boasts "old money". And indeed, there is an atmosphere of entitlement. But that is generously compensated for by beautiful townhouses and the abundance of quiet, compared to the Upper West Side, if you don't count the posh shopping street Madison Avenue and the part of Fifth Avenue that is also known as "museum mile", where most of the important museums are, among which the Metropolitan Museum and the world-famous Guggenheim Museum.
Central Park is a miracle: in the middle of this crazy city you really feel as if you're in the country, even though the skyline is visible in the background almost everywhere. There are huge meadows and on sunny days there are always people reading, sunbathing or listening to music.
On weekends most of Central Park is closed for traffic and the asphalt roads are taken over by bikers and skaters. There also are dozens of sports fields which are mostly used to play baseball.
Many people don't realize that Manhattan is a very hilly island. Lots of hills were levelled for buildings and streets. But those in Central Park were kept (and some new ones were added), which makes the park look even bigger than it is.
The Ramble is a spledid little forest in the park, with steep hills, brooks and even rapids. It also is a cruising zone for gentlemen looking for casual sex with other gentlemen. Apparently this is handled discretely, because in all those years that I have been visiting New York, I have never seen anything interesting going on here.
But it's October and the most wonderful and astonishing aspect of a walk in the park are the trees with their autumn colors, which are so bright here they almost seem to emanate light. New Yorkers probably will call me crazy, but I am still happy as a child that there are so many squirrels in the park.
They're large and grey, with big silver-colored plume tails. They're not exactly shy, but they're not tame either. Be careful not to get bitten if you feed them (which is completely unnecessary, there is enough food for them in the park).
Upper West Side
Thanks to the projects poor people are still living here
Back on the West Side, at 97th Street (those numbers are so convenient, you always know exactly in which part of the city an address is), I wander on Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues for a while. You can observe a typical New York phenomenon here: rich and poor often live at close proximity, but the poor remain almost invisible.
On parts of both avenues are so-called projects. At first sight, they are just ugly and uniform buildings for people who don't exactly swim in their money.
The projects were built for poor people, the ones who make your hamburgers in fast-food restaurants or who sit at the cash registers in supermarkets.
Many New Yorkers (and Americans in general) are afraid of the poor and avoid the projects. I think it's ridiculous and have never minded the advice to stay away from some neighborhoods. This has given me the opportunity to get to know some wonderful districts: Washington Heights, a poor, dominantly Latin-American neigborhood and black Harlem. I have lived in both areas and only have wonderful memories of those times.
What you should do in any case is shopping and looking around on 125th Street, the main shopping street of Harlem. Here you will also find the famous Apollo Theatre, where all the great names in jazz and soul used to perform. At the west end of this street, near the Hudson River, you'll find the Cotton Club, a world-famous jazz club.
On the evening of the historical presidential elections in 2008, when America elected its first African-American president, 125th Street burst out in a spontaneous party, the like of which I've never seen before in my life. The huge crowd was young, remarkably multicultural and ethnically diverse, and completely happy. Strangers were hugging each other and a group of white college students had brought a life-sized, cardboard Obama: people were lining up to have their pictures taken with "Obama". I've never seen so many happy people in one night.
Back to Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues: the farther south you get, the more restaurants and fancy stores you see. It's a process that is called gentrification here: first students and artists, people with education but no money settle in a poor neighborhood.
They get older, find well-paid jobs and eventually have families; the character of the neighborhood changes and better and more expensive stores open there, restaurants, gyms and everything the spoiled middle-class New Yorker wants. As the rents and real estate prices rise, the poor are driven from their apartments, which they no longer can afford. Except for those who live in projects.
It's worthwhile to walk north on Amsterdam Avenue to 110th Street, where the never completed Cathedral of St. John the Divine is located, a beautiful Gothic Revival building. Unfortunately there was a fire some years ago, but since the rededication end 2008 its restored tapestries and huge rose window can be admired again.
The garden south of the cathedral has a complicated bronze sculpture, the so-called Peace Fountain. Around it you find dozens of small bronze sculptures made by elementary school kids. Those are often prettier and more interesting.
Opposite the cathedral is the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a very pleasant place to sit down and have coffee and a delicious croissant. Or cake, they're supposed to be excellent, but not for me.
Take 110th Street back to Broadway and you're back in the world of luxury. On the north and south corners of the intersection at Broadway are two extremely expensive, posh supermarkets, competing for customers. Still, this part of Broadway is not completely gentrified. Between the restaurants and luxury stores you can still find small workshops that have held out so far.
On the corner of 110th Street and Broadway is a subway stop where you can take the #1 train, which crosses Manhattan from the farthest south to the northern end and even further, into the Bronx, one of the five boroughs of New York City.
A collection of villages which form a real city
This borough probably has more reminders of the period when New York was Dutch and called "New Amsterdam" than any other in the city: its name, Brooklyn, is derived from the Dutch town of Breukelen. All over this huge borough you can find Dutch street names. Neigboring Queens has a district called Flushing, derived from the Dutch town of Vlissingen.
Socially and culturally speaking, Brooklyn is a collection of villages which form a real city together. Most buildings are lower than those in Manhattan, only three floors and often a steep stone "stoop" (derived from the Dutch word for both sidewalk and stairs to the main entrance of a house). They often they have gardens both in the front and in the back.
I am visiting a friend who lives in Crown Heights, on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Crown Heights has a sad history of conflict between different ethnic groups.
It has a large Hassidic (strict orthodox-Jewish sect) community and also a sizable black community. When in the 1990s a Hassidic Jew ran over a black kid by accident, there were riots that lasted for days and a young Jewish Yeshivah (Talmud academy) student was stabbed to death.
My friend Amy lives in a street with mostly Caribbean immigrants, many from Jamaica and Barbados. It is a poor, but lively neighborhood. In the summer, most people sit outside on their "stoops" and there is a sense of community, because people know each other and often talk. Amy tells me that her neighbor from Barbados brings her a bowl of delicious food every Friday.
If you are in Bedford-Stuyvesant, it's worthwhile to visit Fulton Street; not for its beauty, but for its interesting stores from all over the world. Take the A or C train from Manhattan and get off at one of the many stops on Fulton Street.
There is a butcher from Bangla Desh, there are clothes stores that specialize in black urban fashion (oversized pants and T-shirts and of course lots of bling), Jamaican restaurants, 99-cents stores (which carry an incredibly large and varied selection of merchandise for almost no money at all) and many churches in all possible flavors.
North of Fulton Street, walking east, you'll find a beautiful residential area with many well-preserved and restored brownstones in tree-lined streets. It's green and quiet here and you can find surprisingly fun places to have coffee or lunch. If you're looking for signs of Dutch history, maybe you'll find Van Buren Street.
Even people in the crowd are dressed up to watch the parade
On the way back from Fulton Street, get off the subway at 8th Avenue and 14th Street: you're in The Village, where the annual Halloween Parade takes place on October 31. It's a definite "must see", even if only once in your life. Ignore the huge crowds and the nervously bitching cops.
This year, there are stilt-walkers and -dancers in the first part of the parade and people with larger than life-size puppets (about 4 meters tall) which are tied to their bodies and each have at least four sticks to make the puppets move. This time, they look like ghosts: huge white sheets with pictures of faces as heads which are illuminated from inside. They are followed by a masked orchestra that plays stirring dance music.
The next group is Mexican inspired: they carry shadow puppets portraying skeletons which sometimes are dressed in brightly colored clothes. It's less than a week before the presidential elections and in the crowd I can see a John McCain and a Sarah Palin, both with swords stuck through their bodies. The crowd cheers.
Many people who came to watch apparently also came to be seen. All efforts have been made to look as scary as possible: real-looking fake wounds, devils, demons and witches. The Oscar goes to a couple who impersonate the monster of Frankenstein and his bride; it looks as if they must have spent hours on their make up and clothes.
Of course there are also transvestites, but less than I expected. This is The Village after all, for decades the gay and lesbian capital of the American East Coast. Nowadays the scene has moved to Chelsea, the neighborhood north of The Village. A very pretty neighborhood too, but a little more middle class.