When you go downtown to the Battery park in New York, you are reminded quite strongly that the history of the US is a history of immigration. At the entrance to the park is a memorial to the purchase of Manhattan from the local tribes by the Dutch. As far as we know, the ancestors of the tribes arrived in the land now called the Americas during a previous ice age, and spread over the continents in the same time that humans took to spread over the old world.
As you pass that monument you see a large expanse of grass and a circular structure behind it (see the featured photo). I think that beautifully green patch of grass was where Fort Amsterdam, and later Fort George, stood since 1626. The departure of the last British soldiers, and their freed slaves, is commemorated in the small plaque above the statue of the charging bull in Bowling Green. If you look carefully along the top edge of the photo here, you will see a plaque which reads Evacuation Day. After Britain lost the Americas to the new settlers, the fort, and the battery which gave its name to the park, was demolished.
The circular building, Clinton Castle, was erected in 1811. The army moved out of it in a few years, and leased it to the city. Jenny Lind, another immigrant, gave her first concert in this expanse of green in 1850. From 1855 to 1892, Castle Clinton was the place where immigrants landed and were processed. I did not enter the castle. I was distracted by a monumental sculptural group near it called The Immigrants (photo below). The sculpture by Luis Sanguino commemorates this period of history.
After this, the Ellis Island facility was started. From the pier here you can see the statue by Bertholdi, possibly the most famous statue in today’s world, which looms over the entrance to the harbour. The connection of the Statue of Liberty and immigration is so strong that it serves all over the world as the symbol of the freedom of human movement. I took a long shot of this statue, and then turned to leave through the East Coast Memorial.
This is a memorial to the US soldiers who died in the West Atlantic during the second world war. I walked up the central aisle of the memorial, with four tall granite slabs on each side with the names of soldiers engraved on them, past the bronze statue of an eagle, and turned to take a last shot of the harbour through which waves of immigrants once arrived.
In Aachen, near the Dutch-German border, I switched on the TV and saw the day-long destruction of the wall that hemmed in West Berlin. Twenty seven years later I walked into the lobby of 520 Madison Avenue and saw a piece of the wall. Five reinforced concrete slabs, out of about 100000. The side that you can see is the one which faced Mariannenplatz in West Berlin.
The cheerful paintings are due to two street artists, Thierry Noir and Christophe Bouchet, who decided to do something which was not only illegal but dangerous. The wall stood inside the territory of East Germany, so anyone painting the wall was technically crossing the border. When asked about this, Thierry Noir said to Huck “…the soldiers were allowed to jump over and arrest me if they wanted to. But I was young and quick at that time so they had no chance against me.”
The two were joined by other artists. Eventually, by the late 1980s, a kilometer long stretch of the wall had been painted. Now Noir sometimes joins other artists to paint other pieces of the wall. He was asked once about his feelings when the wall came down in that June many years ago. His reply was “I was not crying because my world was pulled down, it would be arrogant to say that. It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”
I was the only person in the lobby on that Saturday morning. The guard looked bored, from which I gathered that some still come in to look at this piece of history. I wonder whether twenty five years has been long enough for us to forget that people overcome walls.
It seems to me that my reaction to New York is conditioned by my first experiences. In the late ’80s the city was a gritty place. Some parts of it were too dangerous to walk about in the evenings. You were told to be careful in Central Park, Times Square and Bryant Park. And through it all, steam wafted out from vents and chimneys, making everything look even more weird. It’s a new and more pleasant city now, but the steam still rises from the streets.
It has never been as easy to read about the world as it is today. I sat in a little cafe off 5th Avenue and found out more about this. I was not surprised to learn that the 170 kilometers of steam pipes under the streets of New York make it the steamiest city in the world. What surprised me were the uses to which the 40 million kilos of steam that flow these pipes daily are put. I’d lazily assumed that it was mainly for heating. Not so.
The superheated high pressure steam is used for energy. Restaurants use it to power their dishwashers, and buildings to power cooling units in summer. The Guggenheim uses it to fine-tune the humidity in the building, and hospitals sterilize equipment using it. The system has been operated by Consolidated Edison since the 1950s, when it acquired the business from the NY Steam Corp which started up in lower Manhattan in 1880. As mid-town was developed in the 1920s, electrical cables and steam pipes were laid down together. ConEd claims to have around 2000 buildings as customers and seven generating stations. In three of these stations the steam is a by-product of ConEd’s electrical power generating plants. it seems that the operation is fairly green.
A part of Broadway in lower Manhattan is called the Canyon of Heroes. Ticker tape parades used to take place along it, and these are now commemorated through granite plaques installed along the sidewalk. I walked along, looking at the strips reminding people of the games won by New York’s Yankees and Mets. On the way was the wonderful Georgian chapel you can see in the featured photo.
This is the 250 years old St. Paul’s Chapel, by now the oldest surviving building in New York. Interestingly, the building is made of the bedrock on which the island of Manhattan rests: the rock called Manhattan schist. The chapel is more well known because George Washington came here on the day of his first inauguration, and continued to come here regularly during the years when New York was the capital of the country.
I brought my attention back to the pavement of heroes: astronauts from the early days of space, Haile Selassie, and then, Radhakrishnan, the second president of India. I didn’t know that any Indian president had a ticker tape parade. The date was interesting: June 10, 1963. That’s the day Kennedy announced that the US was ready to enter into negotiations to stop atmospheric nuclear tests. About a year before that, China had invaded India during the Cuban missile crisis. At the end of the crisis, China withdrew its troops unilaterally. And on the same day that the US was ready to start on a new road to peace, the Indian president was given a ticker tape parade on Broadway. International politics was different then, but not completely different. Geography has a way of causing history to flow along certain channels.
On my way from Carnegie Hall to the Hearst Tower I passed in front of the school where Norman Rockwell studied art. The building which holds the Art Student’s League of New York was getting a face lift. A photo would have shown only the scaffolding. Opposite it, near the 57th Street subway station was something no art school should be without: an art supplies store (featured photo). That Mona Lisa on the wall outside the store required a closer look.
It isn’t a da Vinci, but its not so bad. No queues, no tickets, and a Beaux-Arts building for a canvas.
I had expected the Georgian windows in this three-story yellow brick building at the corner of Broad and Pearl Streets. I was surprised that both red and yellow bricks were used, a different colour on each frontage. The hipped roof did not look too out of place. At first sight the chimney was a surprise, although it shouldn’t have been. This version of the Fraunces Tavern came into existence in an architecturally controversial renovation in 1907. The original was built as a family house in 1719, before being sold to Samuel Fraunces in 1762. Fraunces established a tavern which he named the Queen’s Head.
I was happy to walk up the few steps from the street into the dim interior. This pub was part of my Hamiltonian walk. The revolutionary war started soon after the New York Chamber of Commerce was founded in this tavern. During the war, the roof was destroyed in cannon fire. Repairs may have been made by the time George Washington hosted a farewell dinner for his officers here. I later learnt of an inglorious board of inquiry which tried to retain slaves who had been set free at the end of the war, and were to sail away with British troops.
The tavern is on the lowest floor. The upper floors are museums run by the present owners, The Sons of the Revolution. I decided that I preferred to nurse a beer. I sat down at a table and tried to choose from their selection on tap. An oyster flavoured stout was something I wouldn’t mind missing. So the choice boiled down to a heavy stout or a lighter porter. I went with the stout.
A funny thing happened on the way to Central Park. When I came to Park Avenue there was no traffic. A family went past me: the husband and wife running, their two children on skates. A man came past me and turned uptown on Park Avenue to run. By the time a bunch of bikers came up to me I was ready to take a photo. I waited for runners and bikers to go past the intersection before I crossed.
While crossing I realized that I would hardly ever get a chance to take a photo of this kind of Park Avenue. That’s the one you see above. I found later that the avenue was closed to traffic all the way from Central Park to Brooklyn Bridge between 7 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon on three Saturdays of August. Parking was forbidden from 11 the previous night till 2 in the afternoon. I was lucky to be there without knowing about this. I guess if I’d read about it earlier I might have walked down to Brooklyn Bridge.
Last year in Mumbai we saw some streets given over to pedestrians and the public on several Sunday mornings. It was fun to see the same thing in New York.
My longest stay in New York ended in June 2001. The Family returned to Mumbai a couple of days before me. When I got back home I found that she’d picked up a memento for me from the airport: a t-shirt with a picture of the twin towers. It was the perfect gift for a few short months.
7 years later when Mumbai was attacked, I started wearing it again as a personal gesture that I would not, in my mind at least, let the rubble of destruction bury us. I went back to New York last month and walked up to the memorial pools that stand where the two towers used to be when I was there 16 years ago.
It is difficult not to run into traces of Alexander Hamilton or George Washington when you are in the extreme southern tip of Manhattan. Right at the beginning of Broadway I saw the Standard Oil building (featured image). The beautiful detail over the archway of 26 Broadway attracted my attention. A dragon clutching a globe featuring Asia squared off against an eagle with a globe turned to show the Americas. What did this premonition of the 21st century have to do with Alexander Hamilton? I found later that this address was Hamilton’s home until he died in 1804. In less than a century this plot was owned by John D. Rockefeller, who built a series of buildings here from 1885 on. The one which I saw had been built between 1921 and 1928 by and architect named Thomas Hastings.
Broadway curves around Bowling Green here, and the facade designed by Hastings curves with the street. You see this by its reflection in the windows of 25 Broadway, another building designed by Hastings. This is the Cunard Lines building where one could buy tickets for trans-Atlantic voyages from 1921 to 1968. Interestingly, the famous Delmonico’s restaurant ran out of this address from 1846 to 1918. I would have liked to walk in to see the famous ticketing lobby, reputedly modeled after Roman baths. But the venue is now rented out for events, and inaccessible.
This detail on 25 Broadway is a bit of fiction, since Cunard lines always ran steamships. Samuel Cunard and the engineer Robert Napier started operating trans-Atlantic cruises in 1839. They reorganized in 1879 to make it into the Cunard Steamship Company. For many years the company’s ships made the fastest time across the Atlantic. I had done as much of street-level gawking I could do here. It was time for me to move on.
I added to the daily count of three quarters of a million people passing the doors of Grand Central Terminal when I walked in to take photos of the beautiful fixtures which I remembered. When I entered the main concourse, I realized that I had no memory of the gorgeous mural on the ceiling. Drawn in gold on the beautiful blue background are one part of the sky: the signs of the Zodiac from Aquarius to Cancer, Orion and Pegasus, the Milky Way and the Triangulum. If there are any other, I did not notice them. The featured photo shows Gemini on the extreme left, with part of Orion above it, facing Taurus. To the right of this you see Triangulum, and then at the far end, above the northern skylights, you can see Pegasus. Across the centre of the field of view spreads the Milky Way.
I did take a few photos of the things I remembered. In the middle of the photo above you can see the grand galleries of the concourse. The lit up clocks are familiar sights to lost travellers: they mark the information booth. There’s a strange nub of metal atop these clocks. Apparently it is meant to represent an acorn, and is a symbol the Vanderbilts had for themselves when Cornelius Vanderbilt had this structure constructed in 1913.
In this photo you can see all of Orion, facing Taurus, and below that Gemini and then Cancer. The view faces west, and shows one of the main problems with this painting. A commuter noticed this very soon after the Terminal was opened: north and south are correctly placed on the ceiling, but east and west are interchanged. The French artist Paul Helleu had made the drawings based on drawings by Johann Bayer in his 1603 book Uranometria. This is deemed to be correct. Apparently the switch was made inadvertently when J. Monroe Hewlett and painter Charles Basing transferred the design to the ceiling.
This painting was damaged by water seepage and was covered over in 1944 with asbestos boards on which a less elaborate picture was painted by Charles Gulbrandsen. At this stage a second triangle was added to Triangulum (you can see this in the photos, and puzzled me a bit before I read about it). Fifty years later this new painting was also darkened, largely by cigarette smoke rising from the concourse. A restoration of 1995 decided not to remove the boards because of a possible asbestos hazard, but cleaned them up.