Sunday, August 02, 2009

New York 3

I'll finish this eventually, probably.

Ellis Island and Liberty Island
During the time I was in the city I took a fairly relaxed attitude to the business of sightseeing -- no itineraries were written out, or lengthy plans made -- I didn't want to waste my time in the city, but I didn't have to work very hard in order to avoid this. There was only one day where me and Kristen actually planned things in advance, and actually went as far as setting an alarm. The night before, in a slightly drunken haze, I'd decided that we should visit Ellis Island the next day, as that was the only major thing that I'd missed the first time.

It turned out that the Ferry to Ellis Island also stopped at Liberty Island. This was an unexpected bonus, although actually going up inside her (snigger) would have required me to have planned ahead and booked tickets some time before I'd even decided to come to New York. The downside of getting a ferry that stops at an internationally known symbol of goodness and the American Way is that you are treated as a potential terrorist from the moment you go near the ticket booth. I went through quite a lot of 'airport style' security while in New York, and had my bag searched* more times than I can count, but the statue of liberty security still came as a bit of a surprise. I mean, their metal detectors were set off by my glasses, for christ's sake, not even when I flew to the US days after a major terrorist scare did I encounter such zealously calibrated machines. We got on the boat after a few minutes being probed in the security tent and were soon chugging away across the harbor. When we got near to the Island the boat started to pitch over at a rather alarming angle as everybody went to the moosh-baroo side to take photos. Kristen, being a salty sea dog** by trade, assured me that this was within safe limits, although it felt still rather precarious to my jelly-like landlubberlegs.

Once disembarked, we walked around the Island and took some pictures of the giant green lady with the big feet. We probably appeared in the background of far more pictures than we actually took ourselves. The statue of Liberty is very big, and very, er, statuey. I've seen her from fairly close up before (on ferries and the like) and well, there are few women who look prettier if you sit at their feet and stare up their nose.

Ellis Island lies just across a narrow channel from Liberty Island. The channel, like most places in New York Harbor, is filled with red and green navigation buoys. Kristen carefully explained the purpose of these but I've probably got all the details mixed up in my head now, so it's just as well that my job hasn't yet required me to man any helms or tillers.

Ellis Island is home to the fascinating Ellis Island museum, which is all about immigration and immigrants (the right sort of immigrants obviously, the ones that politicians are descended from, not the sort that speak spanish). Unlike most New York museums, Ellis Island's is free. It was a fascinating place, filled with little exhibits about the various stages of the Immigration process and the immigrants themselves. It also had some areas where they'd reconstructed what it had looked like when it was in use, which were a bit grim. On the whole though, the impression the exhibits left you with was that Ellis Island wasn't the terrible immigrant marketplace that it's often portrayed as, and that only a tiny, weensy proportion of people were ever rejected and sent home. I do think that they would have been able to process the immigrants much faster if they'd not put the main reception area -- where lots of forms had to be filled out, and questions answered -- in the great hall with the massive windows looking out over Manhattan. I'm guessing that if you'd come from the arse end of the Ukraine, the sight of 19th century New York would have been a little distracting.

The Museum at Ellis Island manages to be free, incidentally, by tapping into an aspect of american culture that I've always found a little sad. You see, in addition to the informative exhibits there were lots of subtle, and not-so-subtle, plugs for the geneological research services they provide on the Island -- "think you might have an ancestor that came through here? Come to our Research-O-Tron and for just thirty dollars we'll tell you."

It's not that I have a problem with finding out about one's past; what bothers me about the sort of research encouraged by Ellis Island is that, most of the time, I feel like it's providing a surrogate cultural identity to people who don't felt that american culture is good enough, or solid enough, to ground themselves in. You know, like the native born New Yorkers who will tell you, with a completely straight face, that they're Irish. Usually on the basis of having one Irish grandparent (I think most people have at least one irish grandparent).

I suppose to many people it's just always more desirable to be from somewhere else, somewhere you can idealise as being more honest, sophisticated, or authentic than where you were born. It's that phenomenon that makes me reluctant to advertise my Britishness when I'm in bars over there -- I've found myself squirming and uncomfortable while some middle-aged guy from the Bronx tells me how he's from Scotland. It's like how a substantial part of the English Upper class have spent the last thousand years or so shutting their eyes, learning Greek or latin, and desperately pretending that they're not in a vulgar, germanic/nordic/celtic country like England. "I mean, ugh, our greatest playright didn't even pay attention to the classiclal unities, how ghastly". The cultural output of the United States has one of the most impressive canons of literature around and american history is marked by a string of noble ideas and well-intentioned individuals that were never able to get the upper hand in Europe. Despite all this, there are still those who cling to the idea that they're not really american, that they're just working over here for a while -- like, I don't know, five generations, and then they'll go home. I feel like these people have missed the point somewhat.

hmm. That was a rather substantial digression.

Rockerfeller Center
Later that day, after stopping to refill on booze, we went to the Rockerfeller center. Not for shopping, or to look at the hole in the ground where the ice rink is in the winter, but to go up it. Of the various things that I'd done in New York last time I was there, the one thing that stuck most in my mind was the view from the top of the empire state building. It was also the one thing that I was determined I had to drag Kristen along to. I didn't want to do the same thing twice though, so I decided to go up the other skyscaper in New York with a viewing area at the top. This was a very wise choice. The top of the Empire State Building, while very high indeed, is ultimately just a narrow balcony encased in a clunky steel cage -- People are constantly treading on your toes, taking photos of the back of your head, and putting the backs of their heads in your photos. By contrast, the Top of the Rock, as it is named, is a three-floor high terrace that covers the whole of the stepped, flat roof of the building. It's big, and comparatively empty. Thanks to the fact that it was closed to the public between the early eighties and the early naughties it's got a well thought through, unobtrusive suicide-guard made from panels of bulletproof glass, rather than the array of steel gratings welded onto other steel gratings that the Empire State Building has.

You can stay up there for hours, and we did, from the early evening to well after sunset. We wandered between the different levels of the terrace, played with the silly art installations, and took photos of darkness settling over the Empire State Building. Through the big binoculars on the rooftop you could see camera flashes from the people on the top of the Empire state building, and the tiny people looking straigh back at you.

Oh, and it had one other really cool feature. As the doors are closing on the lift as you're going up the attendant says "Look up". You look up, and you see a white, backlit drop ceiling. Meh, you think, what's so impressive about that.

Then it goes transparent, and you start flying up a dimly lit liftshaft at the rate of a couple of floors a second. It's like something out of a science fiction film, and quite painfully cool.

So, er. I think that's everything I can think of to say now. I might think of other things at some other time.


* in a manner that manages to leave you annoyed while at the same time being cursory to the point of uselessness.

**one of the pretty ones; she's got no tattoos, and she's never lost a limb to the jaws of the White Whale.