Traveling on a budget has often meant staying out in the suburbs and taking public transit into cities. As we pulled in to our hotel in Jamaica, in the borough of Queens, we were concerned about walking through the graffiti-splashed neighborhood from our hotel to the nearest subway station. The guy at the front desk said it was safe during the day but recommended we take the hotel’s free shuttle to or from the subway after dark.
Staying in a working-class neighborhood and riding with the locals, however, gave us a better sense of how real folks live. And despite New Yorkers’ reputation for rudeness, three different people helped us figure out the subway card system and get on the right train when we appeared confused. And when Hector accidentally missed his chance to go through the turnstile and his subway card locked up, one man on his way out swiped his own card to get Hector through. Safely aboard the F train, we went into Manhattan.
Our first stop was the Museum of Modern Art, which has free admission on Friday nights. Hundreds of other people had the same idea. The crowds made it challenging to spend much time admiring the collections, but it was worthwhile nevertheless.
We then strolled to Times Square, which was thronged with more tourists there to see a play or just the lights. Rockefeller Center (above) had a bit more breathing room, and better still was Bryant Park next to the New York Public Library. We loved this green square lined with chairs and people out enjoying a drink in the fine evening weather and agreed to return to it again. Back in our ‘hood well after nightfall, we called for the hotel shuttle to whisk us back safely.
The next day we nearly wore holes in our shoes from all the walking. We stopped off at the Empire State Building, strolled up Fifth Avenue to Grand Central Station, strolled back down Park Avenue and then zigzagged to the Lower East Side.
We had wanted to take a guided tour of the Tenement Museum not too far from Chinatown but found tickets already sold out for the day. It hadn’t occurred to me that an obscure-sounding museum would be so popular. Nevertheless, we watched the film detailing how a succession of German, Irish, Italian, Jewish and Chinese immigrants came in waves in the 1800s and settled into one of the most densely populated places in the country. Squalid housing conditions led concerned wealthy citizens to petition the city to build high-rises, schools and parks that would not only improve sanitation in the neighborhood but also help recent arrivals assimilate into American society and become good citizens. This melting-pot neighborhood proved that, given a few generations, standards of living could get better. People also figured out how to get along with others from a diverse array of backgrounds, and in fact it is this diverse mixture of people that has made New York the hotbed of culture that it remains today.
Just down the street, we stopped in at Katz’s Deli for their famous pastrami sandwiches. They weren’t cheap — and they were by no means low-fat — but I’d been having drooling daydreams since the start of Project 100 at the prospect of a pastrami on rye in a New York deli. Afterward we found a sidewalk table at an Irish pub in the nearby Bowery neighborhood and had a pint of Guinness while people-watching. We trudged back up to Bryant Park to end our perfect-weather day, this time relaxing with a newspaper in the outdoor Reading Room. I decided we’d need to come back to this lovely little park one more time during our stay so I could donate the book I had just finished reading to the “leave-a-book, take-a-book” shelf.
Sunday in New York
We got an early start at the Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle, which had an interesting exhibit of sculptures, rugs, furniture and stained-glass pieces from Studio Job team. We had never heard of this Belgian and Dutch couple or their workshop of artisans. In high-end collectibles such as the Swarovski crystal-encrusted Monkey Business (our favorite, of course!), they mock the moneyed, privileged and power-hungry people and institutions that are usually their clients, who either are clueless or have a great sense of humor.
No Sunday in New York would be complete without a stroll in Central Park. We sat on the lawn with a hot dog and a soft pretzel, enjoying yet another day of beautiful spring weather. Rested and refreshed — although the hot dog and pretzel were mediocre — we moved on to the American Folk Art Museum and then checked out a craft and food festival on Columbus Street.
And no trip to New York in general would be complete without a visit to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It’s hard not to get choked up at the sight of Lady Liberty in all her pale green glory. We had perfect weather to admire her and think about what liberty means. And even though it was not the original intent behind this gift from France to the United States, we thought as well about how over the years the statue has come to symbolize a welcome to the immigrants that have shaped not just New York City but the entire country. In a perhaps telling reminder that liberty is fragile, even though she looks solid, the Statue of Liberty is only as thick as two pennies!
The ferry dropped us off next at Ellis Island, which processed more than 12 million immigrants from 1892 until about 1924. The displays in the National Immigrant Museum transport visitors to a time when our country largely welcomed people to our shores as long as they could work and had no grave illness or “mental defect.” The process seemed pretty daunting, to say nothing of the challenges of leaving everything familiar to make a new life for yourself, often with little more than the clothes on your back and a suitcase. Add in discriminatory practices and outright exclusionary policies for different ethnic groups at different times, and you begin to appreciate the progress that generations made.
Back in Manhattan, we continued our own exploration of the Big Apple’s melting pot in Chinatown for dim sum and then Little Italy for gelato, followed by a stroll through Soho and over to Wall Street to see where money moves and shakes. On the opposite corner from the New York Stock Exchange sits the Federal Building and a statue of George Washington, commemorating where he took his first presidential oath of office when New York was America’s first capital.
We devoted our final full day in the city to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another place that left Hector salivating at the millennia of treasures on display. From Egyptian funerary sculptures and Chinese snuff bottles to 18th Century French and British furnishings and interiors, the museum can take days to explore. However, we did the best we could. One of my favorites was the enormous room dedicated Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today mural representing life in New York City in the 1930s as well as scenes from around the country. At one time this artist’s work had fallen out of favor, but his themes — social, economic and environmental concerns about over-production and over-consumption — have since become relevant again. Come closing time, we and hundreds of other museum-goers were ushered out of the building, and we were left wanting one more day to pick up where we left off.
The same goes for our entire time in New York City — we were left wanting one more bite of the Big Apple.