My original plan for travelling from San Francisco on the West coast to New York on the East coast was to use trains. I soon realised that, like India, the USA is a very big place. If I’d taken trains, I would have spent considerably more time travelling from place to place. This would have been obvious if I’d done some planning before the trip. Like India, I opted for improvisation – which has its delights and disappointments.
Having used planes for inter-state travel, I was happy to finally take a train. The journey from Boston to Penn Station in New York was pleasant and uneventful. The trains are clean and punctual; but they reflect a perennial under-investment in the railway infrastructure. Cars are still king. (I’ll write more about public transport in a later post when I visit the New York Transit Museum.)
Accommodation in the US is expensive. NY is no exception. I’d stayed mostly in hostels up until now. This time, for a change, I opted for an Airbnb room. This was my first time using Airbnb. The place I’d found was just north of Central Park. The apartment was in a convenient location for getting into central Manhattan on the subway or bus within about thirty minutes. It was even possible to walk into the centre if I fancied a long stroll.
After meeting my hosts, I went for a walk around the area. In 1988, when I was last here, it was dangerous to go so far north of central Manhattan. Now that the area was gentrified, it was safe to walk around in the daytime and evening.
My first action was to look for a restaurant. My Happy Cows app said that there was a vegan restaurant fifteen minutes away by foot. I walked there, passing many residential apartments. When I got to the supposed location, I couldn’t see any vegan restaurant. I was puzzled; I was sure I had the right address. There were two police officers standing at the diagonally opposite road junction. I crossed to ask them about the address I was looking for. One of them said, “Are you looking for the vegan restaurant?” I don’t know why but I was surprised that a random police officer would know about the vegan restaurant. When I told him I was, he replied that the place I was looking at was, in fact, the vegan restaurant but that it was closed that day; the restaurant had been re-clad to appear like a shop for a film. Apparently, Steven Spielberg was filming there! The officer also pointed to a funeral parlour next to us, which had also been created for the film.
After recovering from this introduction to Manhattan, I weighed up my options. The next nearest vegan friendly place was Whole Foods.
On my way to Whole Foods, I took a detour and passed Central Park. I saw a mother and son staring into the park from the pavement. I could see something moving. I asked them what they were looking at since the light was fading. They pointed to a pair of raccoons!
The following day, I returned to Central Park. I had learnt that there was a pleasant walking route from my Airbnb through Central Park to the centre of Manhattan. Again, in 1988, Central Park wasn’t completely safe to walk in. Now, it was full of locals and, mostly, tourists.
To my surprise, I found Central Park to be a curious and engaging mixture of the wild and the manicured. There were rocky areas, meadows, and Gapstow Bridge that made you feel as if you were not in a city; and then you would come across the visitor centre, Bow Bridge, and Belvedere Castle.
Upon exiting the park, I ambled along 8th Avenue, taking in the scale of Manhattan. It had grown upwards in my absence. Given how small Manhattan is, new building construction is understandably vertical rather than horizontal. I noticed, looking at my photos, that most of them had a portrait orientation. This was not intentional: it was just necessary to capture the height of buildings, which were close to each other.
Eventually I found myself in 5th Avenue at the entrance of the monumental New York Public Library. It was a match for the Austin, Boston, and Chicago public libraries. I walked up the grand marble staircase, flanked by two stone lions, into the main branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Inside, I admired the high ceilings, enclosed courtyard (once used by horse-drawn carriages to drop-off its passengers), the McGraw Rotunda, Astor Hall and the Rose Main Reading Room. The library has been continually expanded and renovated since its creation in 1895.
Adjacent to the library is Byrant Park, a privately maintained public park. The park is dominated by a lawn, which is a popular lunch stop for local workers. Bands play in the park too, as I later witnessed. My favourite part was the open-air library housing complimentary books donated by individuals and institutions. The table tennis table, chess sets, and a games station (where you can borrow various games) complete the sense of community created by this small park in the centre of Manhattan.
It had been a packed first full day in Manhattan. I returned to my Airbnb to cook an evening meal, having picked up food at Whole Foods the previous evening.