First impressions of New York
Airport Security *****
Reception of locals *****
Its been less than three weeks since I came to New York and its pretty safe to say its unlike anywhere else I have been. It's loud, dirty, polluted and I absolutely love it!
It seems like I walk into some political disorder wherever I go; it happened in Thailand, it happened in Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Barcelona and now America. I got here less than a week before before Donald Trump became President and since then the city seems to be in almost a continuous state of protest.
In between the protests, I've managed to walk around a fair bit of Manhattan and managed to visit parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island. The first thing I noticed was the size. The buildings are bigger, the roads are bigger, the cars are bigger, the people are bigger but the main part of Manhattan itself is quite small, surprisingly small actually. However, it manages to pack quite a punch for its size.
FiDi - my new home
It was the one place I've avoided for so long and I won't lie, immigration is one reason. My brown friends, my white friends, my mom, my work - pretty much everyone that found out that I'd be moving to New York for half a year warned me about immigration. They told me to expect the worst, and I was ready to face what I was sure would be the worst airport experience so far. I was ready to write what would undoubtedly be the longest blog post so far just on my experience in immigration.
Now that I think about it, I don't know why. My experience at the US Embassy wasn't too bad and my brother did an East Coast road trip last year and despite looking as Sikh as it gets, told me that he got through absolutely no problem, in fact he told me they were even a little friendly. Perhaps it was getting stopped in London for secondary screening, but when I walked up to the immigration official I was ready for any question. She asked me what my business was, I told her I'd be working for 6 months and then told her where. She looked up, wished me well and that was it. That was my experience with American immigration...one question. That being said, I arrived a handful of days before Trump became President, it seems my next experience might no be so smooth but more on that later.
I managed to get my apartment sorted before I arrived. I'm not the richest guy in the world (I'm working on it) but my work were incredibly generous with the budget they gave me. I had a choice of a few area's including TriBeCa and the West Village. In the end I decided to go for the Financial District, I figured a shorter commute would be more preferable than a livelier area and on the whole I think I made a good decision. At the same time, as I'm on the border of TriBeCa, it's a short walk to nice restaurants.
The Financial District (FiDi) is the oldest part of the city, today famous for Wall Street, the Freedom Tower, 9/11 memorial, a couple of museums and Battery Park with ferries to the Statue of Liberty. Unlike the rest of New York, the roads are narrow and winding which gives it an older feel, and its nice, however arriving in the middle of winter means those narrow streets and tall buildings are perfect conditions for wind tunnels. January and February are meant to be the coldest months, although my arrival coincided with some unseasonably warm weather.
I really like FiDi, parking restrictions means that unlike the rest of New York there are very few cars on the street, that being said the honking of car horns is replaced by the horns of ships sailing past the harbour. And even then, the sound of sirens is deafening. Police cars and fire engines here are ridiculously loud. This was the area where European immigrants first started settling in large numbers, first the Dutch, then the British, Irish, Germans and Italians, each of them leaving a mark on the city. Despite being quieter than the rest of Manhattan, there is a lively area around the historical Stone Street lined with restaurants and bars. I met up with another person from my company back in England who is in New York for a year with a different organisation and we made our way around the area and I found the atmosphere to be very fun and relaxed.
On 11 September 2001, an event in New York changed the world. Over 3000 innocent Americans lost their lives that day. On 12 September 2001 another American, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Arizona was shot dead in a 'revenge' attack - he was a Sikh.
When my dad died when I was young my mom did an amazing job to ensure I didn't take on too much responsibility too quickly and that I had a good childhood. I can pretty much pinpoint 9/11 as the day my childhood ended. Everything felt different after that. People looked at me different and treated me differently. I remember being in school and looking at the TV and a guy in a turban and beard was looking back at me. Now to me he didn't look like a Sikh, but I knew Sikhs were going to be targeted by those who didn't know any better, and thats exactly what happened.
My apartment overlooks Wall Street from my bedroom, the harbour on the Southern Side and Manhattan from the north. The views are incredible, although at the same time a little eerie. The footprints of the Twin Towers are prominently placed in front of the newly rebuilt Freedom Tower. It's obvious that as much as the lives of Sikhs were changed after 9/11, the lives of New Yorkers were affected even more. I've spoken to a number of people about that day; the man who came to install my cable, a couple of people at work, a handful of people I have met in New York. They all spoke about NYC before the attack and NYC after, they spoke about the day, how it affected their lives. I can tell by the quiver in their voices, its something still very raw. What impressed me about NYC was watching the people come together on TV back in the Midlands, optimism in adversity, or what Sikhs call Chardi Kalla. Despite this attack on their city, New Yorkers remain some of the most welcoming and warm people I have ever met. It also makes me think about cities around the world that constantly face bombardment and how the people there must cope.
The area where I stay remained uninhabitable for a number of years afterwards due to the pollution from the debris but it is now making a strong recovery as little cafes and shops open up. I've found a few really nice places, open quite late in the area from little breakfast cafes, to sports bars, there is always something to do.
Midtown and Central Park
The area around Midtown is home to some of New York's most famous landmarks; the Rockefeller Centre, the Empire State building, the Chrysler Building, Madison Square Garden, Times Square and the shops on 5th Avenue.
I paid a visit to Times Square with an American friend of mine, and I didn't expect to like it. I knew it was going to be very busy and touristy and after all its just a few lights right? I was so wrong! As soon as I turned the corner, the night sky was lit up by the sheer quantity of lights, I've never seen anything like that in my life. It literally made me take a step back as I tried to process everything that was happening. It's spectacular. There is a little stage made up of red stairs that you can climb on one end of the Square and it gives the perfect view of the lights all around. It looks like theres a thousand things going on and you can barely walk a few steps without someone trying to sell you something. We then took a short walk to Madison Square Garden, which advertises itself as the worlds most famous arena. It looked busy and fairly large from the outside and I'm looking forward to watching a basketball game there during my time in New York.
We also spent time in Central Park. The Park is an 843 acre space of greenery in an otherwise completely built up city. The park was build in the mid 1800's and one of its influences was the Derby Arboretum that I visited in the East Midlands back home. We arrived on a cold, rainy and grey day, but still managed to walk almost the entire length of the park. Unfortunately, due to the season and the weather, it wasn't particularly green and I'm looking forward to visiting the park again in Spring, perhaps on a bike tour. The paths in the park are long and winding and there are a number of landmarks within the park itself and I saw a fair few of them during the couple of hours I spent there, although I'll probably write a more detailed blog on the park when I revisit it during warmer temperatures. What I will say is the park is home to some absolute mutant squirrels, they are huge!
One of the views I was most looking forward to was from the top of the Rockefeller Centre, or Top of the Rock. Located in the heart of midtown, the Rockefeller Centre was completed in the 1930's and was financed by the oil baron, John D Rockefeller, Despite not being as tall as some of the other skyscrapers in the city, it gives the best view of Manhattan primarily because you can see all the other famous skyscrapers (that look a lot better) from the observation deck of the Rockefeller Centre. The price for the ticket was a very reasonable $34 making it cheaper to view than the Shard. I timed my ticket so I would be able to watch the sunset, getting two versions of Manhattan. The queue was very long and combined with the airport style security in operation (which was not a problem), it took 30 minutes from entrance to rooftop, although that still gave me enough time to view the city.
The view from the top is spectacular. There are three observations decks, two of them with large glass panels (that could use a clean) but the highest one is open, giving the best view. You get a 360 panoramic view although the north and south side are the best. From the north you can see as far as Harlem, with Central Park taking up most of view. The park looks amazing from this height as you can see building upon building, but in the middle is the large rectangular shaped greenery. Its almost surreal. The south side has a great view of Midtown all the way down to the Statue of Liberty. You can see all the main buildings, the beautiful Chrysler Building, the Freedom Tower, Bank of America Tower and of course, right in the centre the Empire State building. I was lucky to go on a day when there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sunset provided an excellent backdrop.
In the cold open air at such a height, everyone was wrapped up looking like Eskimo's, I didn't really think to. It took over an hour for the sun to set, and I remained on the upper of the 3 decks during the whole time. People were looking at me like I was crazy, and I did think to leave on a couple of occasions but I powered through. When I finally left after the sky had turned dark, I had a headache (followed by a nosebleed) and my hands were also red/purple but it was definitely worth it and I'd highly recommend it.
I've spent a fair bit of time around the area of 5th and 6th avenue, just to take a look around. The shops are high end, the roads very wide and its always fairly busy. My favourite building in the area, in fact my favourite building in New York is the Chrysler. The building was completed during a glut of skyscrapers in the city and whilst some have aged poorly, this still looks like a jewel in the city. It was slightly shorter and much more slender than I had imagined. This is in contrast to the other skyscraper built at a similar time, the Empire State Building. I don't know what else to say about it, other than it is big. Not particularly tall when you think about some of the skyscrapers in Asia now, but it just has such a large footprint, its an absolute monolith and you can see if from a lot of places in the city. In fact even from my apartment, and from my office, its always the most prominent feature of the skyline.
Brooklyn Bridge and East Manhattan
One of the first things I did in New York was take a trip across the Brooklyn Bridge with an American friend of mine who I had initially met through my travels to South East Asia, Although lacking the grandeur of Tower Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge is actually older and just as nice, although in a completely different way. The elegant design provides for many good photo opportunities, especially with the Manhattan skyline in the background, You can see everything from the southern trip of the island all the way up the Upper East Side and Harlem.
The walk across the bridge took about 20 minutes at a leisurely pace and I really enjoyed it, one of my favourite things I have done so far. I also have a pretty good view of the bridge from my office window which is really nice as it reminds me of those first couple of days in New York where everything seemed so new.
I also took a walk through Chinatown and Little Italy. My colleagues tell me that once upon a time Little Italy was much larger than it is now, however the Chinese outcompeted the Italians, many of whom had long moved out to more residential neighbourhoods and Chinatown grew at the expense of Little Italy. The Chinese side was much larger and although called Chinatown I saw many Vietnamese and Thai shops. There were late night roadside market stall vendors, similar to the night markets I had seen in SE Asia and the area was very lively. As I continued my walk I found myself in the smaller, but arguably more beautiful Little Italy.
Little Italy was home to the large immigrant Italian population in the late 19th Century, having 10,000 Italians living there in its peak in 1910. Today, Little Italy is smaller in size and the number of Italians are roughly 10% of their number 100 years ago. The core on Mulberry Street is still the same as before, but the outskirts have since been eaten up by Chinatown. I found the buildings of the area very beautiful, although work colleagues had warned me, despite its name its actually one of the worst places to eat actual Italian food.
A walk through Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Soho & TriBeCa
My favourite way of getting acclimatised to a new city is by walking through it and exploring at my own pace. It helps me get my bearings and lets me explore places I wouldn't usually see if I went on a tour. I decided to take a long walk home from just south of Midtown, criss crossing my way through the city.
I started at Flatiron, famous for its narrow skyscraper. Built in 1902, its one of the most iconic buildings in the world and it looked just as beautiful in real life as it does when you see it on TV. The infrastructure in Manhattan is hit or miss, a colleague told me the city is famous for tearing down and rebuilding, no matter how beautiful the old building, no matter how ugly the new one so it was great to see something with a bit of age having such a prominent position in the city.
I then began to walk east to Chelsea taking in the Highline and Chelsea Market. The Highline is a famous public park built on a disused high rise railway line. The concept of it is very good, unfortunately I arrived on a grey raining day so didn't see too much of it. I'm looking forward to returning in Spring once greenery returns to the park. Chelsea Market is an indoor market that sits just below the Highline. Inside there are a lot of open pipes and a 'modern' design and I really liked the feel of it, although it did come across a little pretentious. There are all sorts of shops, from restaurants to book stores to gift shops. I walked south toward the West Village, an area famous for its bars and restaurants as well as celebrity homes before turning east towards Greenwich Village. The roads are very wide, and in a grid layout so its very hard to get lost however all those cars make the air very obviously feel polluted. Even on a cold day I could feel the warm fumes of car exhausts all around me.
I stopped off at Murray's Bagels, a famous cafe known for its bagels (surprise surprise). They weren't bad but I've definitely had better already in my time here. In fact, I'm slowly ticking off bagel and pizza places in New York. If there is one thing that New York beats pretty much every other city hands down (probably with the exception of Singapore) is its food. Food culture also seems very strong. At work, my colleagues take pride in taking me to nice restaurants and a senior manager actually put together a list of restaurants for me. They argue with each other about whats best although I feel it might be a little wasted on me as I eat whatever's put infront of me. I definitely don't consider myself a 'foodie'.
I continued into Greenwich village across Union Square and the NYU campus. There was a small protest going on against Trump, the floor covered in anti-Trump graffiti. As I walked through this bohemian area, random strangers would smile at me and then a group approached me saying they would stick with their Muslim citizens. "Good for you, I'm a Sikh". They looked pretty embarrassed, I'm a liberal guy, but sometimes the most patronising people in the world are liberals. They still don't accept that part of the problem is when anyone has a differing opinion it gets shouted down. As I continued down the road I got similar comments and even a Salam and being a guy that would like people to get along I gave a Salam back. I'll admit, the people of New York so far have been very nice and very welcoming.
My walk next took me into SoHo, an area with beautiful brick buildings and small boutique shops. Its an area that has seen a lot of recent gentrification and the little art galleries and quirky cafes gave the area a really nice feel. As I continued south I headed into TriBeCa (or TRIangle BElow CAnal Street).
TriBeCa borders the northern part of where I live and is also the eastern border where I work so I have found myself spending a lot of time in the area. Its the place I usually go for lunch and also where I do my weekend grocery shopping. The area is home to the Tribeca Film Festival and a host of celebrities. In fact it is the most expensive and also safest area of the city. A former industrial and warehouse district, in the late 1980's artists began to move into the area, relocating into the spacious lofts of the former warehouses and wherever artists go, gentrification tends to follow.
Statue of Liberty and Staten Island
I live a 5 minute walk from the Staten Island ferry terminal and Battery Park so I decided to take advantage of a sunny day and catch the ferry. A few people have told me that there is no point catching the special tour that actually goes to Liberty Island and to save money and catch the free ferry from New York Harbour to Staten Island.
The ferry runs 24 hours a day completely free of charge and unlike pretty much everywhere else in New York there was no special security station so it felt a lot more relaxed. The ferry runs every 20 minutes and both on the way there and on the way back it was pretty much full. There were three decks on the ferry that I caught and I did what i usually do, no thought process just action and headed right to the top. I should have rethought my action when I saw a sign saying 'Hurricane Deck' but stood outside and watched the ferry leave the harbour. As soon as the boat started to pick up speed, I may as well have been on a mountaintop it was so cold and windy. I had a good spot though, so I wasn't turning back. The view of the New York skyline as you leave the harbour is amazing, the view of the Statue of Liberty not so much. Although the entire journey takes about 25 minutes, you pass the Statue of Liberty within the first half of the journey, and I'll be honest it doesn't get very close to the Statue. I think when it warms up I'll probably just pay the money and get onto the actual island.
I got off at Staten Island and decided to get the 'Staten Island Railway' a small transport system that cuts through the island. I headed toward Old Town where I had read there was a small Sikh Gurdwara. The journey didn't take long, less than 15 minutes, and there was no chance of getting lost as I walked out of the station into a quiet suburban neighbourhood as the Gurdwara was right next to the station. It sits rather inconsipcuously in a residential street and its not bigger than the size of two houses. I walked inside, through the kitchen into a small Darbaar Sahib that was pretty well attended considering the size, there were maybe about 30-40 people. It was nice to get away from the noise and business of Manhattan into the peace and meditative atmosphere of a Gurdwara.
The train runs every 30 minutes, I decided to stay about an hour and caught the train back and then jumped onto the ferry back across the Statue of Liberty and into Manhattan. As I was waiting on the platform of the Old Town Railway Station, I could still hear the meditation of simian coming from the Gurdwara, I won't lie, that sounded very nice.
The Un-American American
I was sitting on the ledge of my window, looking outside at the Hudson River when I saw a small plane fly past my building dragging along a sign which had we out number him, resist! It was the day of Donald Trump's inauguration and New York was not happy.
I have seen a protest pretty much everyday I have been here. Within the first couple of days I joined a women's march supporting gender equality. A few days later there was a pro-immigration march in Battery Park overlooking the Statue of Liberty.
The United States prides itself on being an open country, a land of opportunity, so putting a selective immigration ban seems to go against American values and beliefs. It's also a little ironic that a country that is pretty much all immigrants can arbitrarily say "not you". As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to arrive a few days before Trump took office and although I wanted to explore a few countries around the United States, I'm rethinking those plans, just because I know a return into the country will not be much fun.
When this all started Donald Trump was the joke candidate, a strangely narcissistic, self centred buffoon you couldn't help but laugh at. It's no longer funny. When the Supreme Court overturned the immigration ban, Trump started attacking the American judiciary system. All of a sudden, you have a man that is trying to increase his own power at the expense of democratic institutions. I'm not going to draw parallels from history, but there was one other guy who did something similar, and that ended up costing tens of millions of lives.
I don't think even Donald Trump is stupid enough to start a war, but he has brought out a lot of hatred that lets be honest, has always been there, but is now perceived to be legitimised. You have a bunch of people who according to all the television interviews I have seen keep saying that globalisation has ruined America and globalisation isn't fair on America, that the country is a net loser in the current system. It's funny because the current predominant economic system was perfected by America and no one has championed free trade and globalisation more than the United States. In fact, if these guys travelled the world, they would see that American companies have benefitted more from free trade and globalisation than anyone else. There is barely a city in the world that doesn't have a McDonald's with a drive thru with a man sitting in a Ford listening to American music. If America is the loser from free trade I'd love to see who the winner is.
The thing is free trade has benefited America greatly, unfortunately, all the wealth that has gone back to the country has been accumulated by just a handful of powerful people and hasn't been distributed equitably. People just like Donald Trump. And when the understandably frustrated Americans ask where the results of their success are, people like Trump shift the blame from themselves and say its those guys across the border, they've stolen all your money, as he quickly deposits another bucketload of cash in a Swiss Bank Account. No wonder he doesn't want to show his tax returns.
What does give me hope is that New York doesn't just dislike him, New York strongly detests him. This is a man that has absolutely no confidence from this city. The amount of people that have spoken to me saying that he doesn't represent them is astounding. And I'll say one thing, New Yorkers don't do things by halves, when they protest they really go all out.
The Super Bowl
One of my managers at work invited me to her house for the Super Bowl where she was having a small Super Bowl party with some of her friends.
I've never watched an American Football game before, its not really a sport played in any large numbers outside of the United States but I did appreciate that the Super Bowl is one of the biggest events of the American sporting year. In fact, the Super Bowl tends to get similar viewing numbers as the UEFA Champions League so its a big deal. As soon as I arrived, television adverts were already very Super Bowl related. At work, a fair few people were talking about it, although I was told New York isn't a big football market.
I headed over to Brooklyn to watch the game and it was a lot of fun. I ended up watching one of the most exciting Super Bowls in history and the only one to go into overtime. It was a lot of fun, but its hard to get into a game that stop every couple of seconds. And don't get me started on the commercialisation. At one point I wasn't sure if I was watching a sporting event or a music concert. Adverts play pretty much every other minute It's the kind of thing that if it ever happened in England, there would be a huge backlash but here it's normal. That being said it seems like it brings together people and thats quite important. The lack of focus on the actual game as opposed to the entertainment isn't something that I'm familiar with, or too fond of.
As I headed back from Brooklyn, having had a fun time, people were emptying onto the streets and everyone was talking about the Super Bowl. An older man approached me and started talking about the game, I pretended I knew what he was talking about. I didn't have a clue. And thats something fairly unique about New York as a large city, randoms will come and talk to you, and so far its been overwhelmingly positive conversations.
The good & the bad
My first few weeks in New York have been very enjoyable. A lot of people say its similar to London, but so far I'd have to disagree. Yes its a big cosmopolitan city, it is multicultural and its very busy but there are a lot of differences. Some things it does better, some things are not so good but I will say one thing, I love it so far!
I actually prefer the people in New York. My company has made me feel very welcome and they are incredibly fun to work with. Even the people on the streets are nice, randomly starting conversations (on multiple occasions) and generally being very friendly. I was lost on a platform waiting for a train into Manhattan and without even asking a bystander realised I looked lost and helped me. With Trump in power, its actually a better time for Sikhs to visit New York than any point since 2001, that is if you can get past the airport. The city is so united against Trump, that its taking extra care of its minority citizens. If you feel you have stopped at the airport for no valid reason, follow these simple rules.
That being said there is a bit of a bell curve. The nice people are much nicer, but there are a lot of crazies in New York, and they are really crazy. This is partly because the lack of access to healthcare. In fact, from what I have seen, the poverty in New York seems to be worse than many other western countries I have been to. There are a lot of homeless and a friends was telling me the reason there are a lot of crazies is because they aren't getting treatment for sometimes simple issues. The poverty here does seem bad, and I've brought more cups of coffee for homeless people here than anywhere else.
The city itself isn't as overtly beautiful as London. I was reading a local article that mentioned that a lot of the architecture is beginning to fall apart, and even though the city is much newer than London, parts of it look very dated. Don't get me wrong, its far from ugly, in fact, much of the city could go toe to toe with most European cities in terms of aesthetics, but the bad parts are very bad. Its not very clean either, in fact there is a lot of litter on the streets of Manhattan which I found very surprising.
That brings me onto transport. The trains might be larger and air conditioned and the wifi in the underground stations is very good, but the transport system is not that great. In fact its closer to Paris than London. Subway stations are ugly and in need of refurbishment and the trains themselves look very old. Trains always seem to be late and their schedule is much more sporadic than London. In fact, many times I have found myself waiting 10/15 minutes even in the middle of Manhattan. 10/15 minutes in the Midlands isn't bad at all, but London has altered my expectations. It's not easy to get around either. You may have to catch a train from Wall Street, but there are four different Wall Street stations that take in different lines going different ways to different places and all spread out over a few blocks. Therefore its hard to know where to enter and exit.
Finally, pharmaceutical adverts. I can't begin to describe how weird these are. The first time I turned on my TV I saw about 2 or 3 different adverts for some form of pill and figured I was on the health channel or something but nope, it was CNN. Big pharma companies seem to control America. Honestly, I saw an advert for a diabetes tablet, and then it listed its side effects including "may cause drowsiness or tiredness". The very next advert said "are you always tired and drowsy"? It then advertised a different tablet, with possible side effects including death. Weird, weird, weird!
For all those negatives, there is something about the city that is difficult to describe in words. A kind of buzz that I haven't felt anywhere before. An energy that is infectious and makes you want to wake up, go outside and begin exploring. Maybe its the friendly locals, perhaps the amazing food or the fact that there is always something cool to do or see, but I am enjoying myself much more than I thought I would. I'm looking forward to exploring different parts of the city in more detail over the next few months - and if these next few months are anything like my first few weeks, I'm going to have an amazing time.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.