New York City has something for everyone. The internet is overflowing with endless and ever-changing lists of ‘must see’ and ‘must do’ attractions to fill out anyones itinerary. We know this because we checked many of them when planning our own bite sized break. What became apparent to us shortly after arriving, however, was the vast difference between our expectations and the reality of many of the sights of New York City.
The first thing we noticed about NYC is that it is filthy. While the iconic skyline glitters in every photograph, at street level it is a whole different story. In some places, mountains of garbage line the streets with no apparent collection date, making NYC a great place to be a rat, less so a human. We spotted several as we emerged from Penn Station at 2 am and caught our first glimpse of Manhattan. Looking past the filth we did enjoy witnessing the city in the dead of night. Road and building works continue and deliveries are made without the interruption of daytime crowds. It felt like the city was exhaling after a long day, ready to do it all again tomorrow. It truly is the city that never sleeps.
As night turned to day the weekday rush began. We expected large crowds, particularly because we were travelling in the summer holidays, but this was busier than we could have imagined. Swarms of commuters emerged from buses, subway stations, and ferries converging on the city. A staggering 1.4 million people commute to Manhattan daily, swelling the population to 3 million. This is like the entire population of Adelaide travelling to Manhattan every day. It is no wonder the city struggles to keep up with the whirlwind of detritus that accompanies this daily migration event.
However, NYC is no stranger to large waves of people, who have been flocking to NYC ever since the city began. Aspirations of a new start in the land of opportunity brought immigrants to the fledgling city from all across the world. This early and rapid expansion put a strain on the sanitation systems of the time, meaning life for early immigrants was tough. We learnt all about this on a great walking tour by Free Tours by Foot, a favourite company of ours. This tour was different to those we’d taken in the past as it doubled as a food tour. Beginning in Washington Square Park, we explored the area now known as Greenwich Village. The story of its earliest inhabitants echoes the stories of migrants all over the USA today, searching for the ‘American Dream’. The reality of life at that time in an emerging NYC was far from a dream. Overcrowded houses and poor working conditions were the norm. The harsh life of these early residents of New York’s tenements was brought abruptly into the public eye with a series of photographs by Jacob Riis titled ‘How the Other Half Lives’. The shocking photos kickstarted a chain of events leading to improvements in living conditions for those forced to live in the city’s slums. Fast forward over 100 years and the buildings are still standing. Free of their tenement past, they find themselves in a very upmarket part of the city where the only link to the past are the nearby restaurants, many of which still bear the names of their original owners from years past. On the tour we sampled delicious treats that have stood the test of time, including two famous New York pizzas, Belgian fries, arancini, falafel and gelato all for around $10 – it was certainly a delicious but also insightful tour.
To take a break from all the hustle and bustle we decided to escape the city and take the Staten Island Ferry. This service has been ferrying New Yorkers on their daily commute for over 100 years and has been free since 1997. While we may have escaped the city we did not escape the crowds. Even mid-morning on a weekday the ferry was bursting at the seams with frugal, view-loving tourists. We were lucky enough to nab a space on the right hand side of the ferry allowing us to enjoy one of NYC’s greatest attractions, its skyline. NYC is stunning above street level and/or when seen from afar. Manhattan is a narrow island only around three kilometres wide that is home to numerous architectural wonders all reaching for the sky. The Staten Island Ferry provides the perfect vantage point to appreciate how the waters of Upper Bay reflect the skyline, making for the perfect photo. Our other hot tip for avoiding the crowds and escaping the grime of street level NYC is to take the Roosevelt Island tramway from E 59th and 2nd Ave over to (you guessed it) Roosevelt Island. Take the tramway straight back again like we did, or actually take the time to explore the island and its lack of crowds. Sadly the tramway isn’t free but is still cheap (same cost as a one-way fare on the subway) and you’ll get some solid views of the Manhattan skyline during the ride as a bonus.
As we hadn’t had enough of fighting through crowds to get good skyline views, we decided to scale the Rockefeller Center at sunset to get our quintessential photos of the NYC skyline at dusk. Because have you even visited NYC if you haven’t photographed the skyline and uploaded it to social media? In terms of observation decks to choose from to do this, the Rock was an obvious choice for its location and architectural mediocrity. The author Guy de Maupassant famously hated the Eiffel Tower so much he ate lunch everyday from the base of the tower, as it was the only place he could enjoy the skyline of Paris without the tower messing up the view. It sounds quirky, but it is good advice when considering how best to capture the iconic skyline, as your view will be missing whatever building you’re viewing from. The Rock has the advantage of being not super exciting to look at but positioned perfectly at the midpoint of Manhattan, with uninterrupted views north to Central Park and to the south towards the Empire State Building. Book a viewing time online to beat the queues. Once you’re at the top, you can stay as long as you want. Just be warned that if you plan to visit as the sun sets, so will what seems like every other tourist in the city, so be prepared to muscle your way to a good front spot on the top level.
Now you’ll have your very own gleaming skyline photograph, like the one we took while at the top. This photo, like many others, may convince you to visit this giant city. Remember that while the skyline is truly magical, NYC really does seem to be a tale of two cities and at street level it is a different story. In the 1927 film classic Metropolis, wealthy citizens occupy high rise apartments overlooking the vast glittering city while unseen workers toil below ground to power the city. There is a similar vibe in NYC which we felt as we emerged from the subway in the early hours of the morning. Alongside all the workers preparing the city for the next day are those selling trinkets, operating food stalls, busking, and all kinds of side hustles to boost their daily income. It has been said that no one “lives” in New York City, they just survive. So be aware of the two worlds living side by side when you visit New York City, even the one hidden in plain sight.