Thursday, July 7, 2011

Trip to USA - Exploring on foot

We spent a lot of time on foot in Manhattan, walking and exploring the sights, the streets and neighbourhoods. To get from one district to another, we walked to the subway station and rode the subway. It's like walking and shopping the length of Orchard Road and then riding the MRT to Chinatown to explore the little streets full of sights and smells, then taking the MRT to Sentosa and wandering about Sentosa for a few hours, going on the rides and visiting the Underwater World and the Merlion there, and then taking the MRT to traipse around the Night Safari. 90% of the time, we were on our feet. The only times we were sitting down were when we were having a quick meal or when we were on the subway.

It was a lot of exercise as we were carrying a lot of weight - a full backpack (with essentials like water, diapers and snacks for Ryan, nursing blanket, guidebooks, etc.) and a heavy camera bag, plus whatever we bought along the way. More than half the time, we were also carrying Ryan. Still, we were very hardworking and tried to see as much as we could everyday and explore each area meaningfully without rushing. By the end of the day, everyday, we were exhausted (but happy).

On foot, we found Manhattan very easy to navigate as it is laid out on a grid. The avenues run north-south and intersect with the streets which run east-west. I found it interesting that the grid plan is pretty strict: according to Wikipedia, "the numbered streets are 60 feet (18 m) wide, with about 200 feet (61 m) between each pair of streets. With each combined street and block adding up to about 260 feet (79 m), there are almost exactly 20 blocks per mile. The typical block in Manhattan is 250 by 600 feet (180 m). Fifteen crosstown streets were designated as 100 feet (30 m) wide, including some of the borough's most significant transportation and shopping venues". Broadway is an exception to the grid and runs at a diagonal to the grid in much of Midtown Manhattan, creating major named intersections at Union Square, Herald Square, Times Square and Columbus Circle.

Something special arises as a consequence of the strict grid plan. Twice a year the sunset/sunrise is aligned with the street grid lines and the sun is visible at or near the horizon from street level, its rays searing the streets in a warm glow. This phenomenon is known as Manhattanhenge. The term is derived from Stonehenge, where the sun aligns with the stones on the solstices. Here's a photo of Manhattanhenge seen from 34th street. The first one is at sunrise, the second is at sunset.

© Untapped Cities by Monica Morrison

Photo taken by Michelle Young

After our trip up the Empire State Building, and a quick cuppa at Starbucks on the ground floor, we ventured out onto Fifth Avenue, ranked by Forbes magazine in 2008 as the “most expensive street in the world”. It is also consistently ranked among the most expensive shopping streets in the world as it is home to many prestigious shops.

Fifth Avenue serves as the dividing line for house numbering in Manhattan. It separates, for example, East 59th Street from West 59th Street. From this zero point for street addresses, numbers increase in both directions as one moves away from Fifth Avenue. A portion of Fifth Avenue also runs along and delineates the eastern border of Central Park.

I was tasked by a colleague to buy a Kate Spade bag for her, so we wandered along the shopping stretch in Fifth Avenue until we came to the store (the store didn't have the model in stock). Singapore is no slouch when it comes to fancy stores and labels but I was excited to see a number of labels that I'd heard of but are not available in Singapore, like J. Crew (one of the few stores that we went into). It was also a pleasure to walk into an individual store, instead of a space in a shopping mall. It feels much more elegant.

We were itching to see more of the city so we weren't keen on shopping. We kept walking and we soon came to Madison Square Park. It was lunchtime and there were lots of people relaxing on the benches, eating their sandwiches or packed lunches, reading or just napping. There were a lot of people walking their dogs and there was also a dog run there.

Through the trees, I caught sight of a statue on the lawn which, from a distance, looked flat, almost like a billboard. It was a 44-foot (13.4 m) tall head of a girl, with closed eyes and a tranquil and serene expression.

As we got closer, we could see that it was clearly three-dimensional, but somehow, it still felt "flat". As we walked around it, our perception of its dimensions changed little by little. Uncanny. The whiteness of the sculpture gives it an eerie quality, almost as if its features were projected onto the surface like a hologram. I also found it interesting that it does not sit on a pedestal or base, it simply rises straight from the ground, which adds to its surreal character. Amazing. The sculpture is called Echo, by Jaume Plensa, and it is the park's summer-long art installation.

Appropriately, from this strangely proportioned statue in Madison Square Park, you can see the Flatiron Building, an undisputed icon of New York City. Its name was a nickname that eventually became official - due to its triangular shape, it reminds you of an iron. The building has Broadway on one side, Fifth Avenue on the other, and the open expanse of Madison Square and the park in front of it.

The Flatiron Building was designed as a vertical Renaissance palazzo with Beaux-Arts styling. Upon completion in 1902 it was one of the tallest buildings in the city and the only skyscraper north of 14th Street. The building was designated a New York City landmark in 1966, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. There are plans to turn the Flatiron building into a world-class luxury hotel, although the conversion may have to wait many years until the leases of the current tenants run out.

Today, the Flatiron Building is frequently used on television commercials and documentaries as an easily recognizable symbol of the city. In the 1998 film Godzilla, the Flatiron Building is accidentally destroyed by the US Army while in pursuit of Godzilla, and in the Spiderman movies, it is depicted as the headquarters of the Daily Bugle, for which Peter Parker is a freelance photographer. It is also the home of the fictional company Damage Control in the Marvel Universe comics.

Photo taken by Richard on his iPhone, with PhotoSynth
It was moments like these, when we were standing in the presence of buildings and structures which we know so well from movies or other popular culture, that we felt an emotional rush. There was awe and wonder at the design, engineering and construction. There was respect for the rich history of the city and gratefulness for the preservation of these remarkable structures. Most of all, there was amazement at the fact that we were actually there, seeing and touching and experiencing what we previously only had impressions of.

Happily, we had lots of moments like that on our trip.

After walking about some more, we eventually decided to go and see the Statue of Liberty and so we took the subway to Battery Park where we could take a ferry out to New York Harbour to see her. Battery Park is a public park in Lower Manhattan. Lower Manhattan is also where you find Wall Street and the site of the World Trade Centre.

In the past, artillery batteries were placed in Battery Park to protect the settlements behind it. The last remnant of these defensive structures is Castle Clinton, which is open to the public. The park is also home to several memorials including the East Coast Memorial which commemorates US servicemen who died in coastal waters of the western Atlantic Ocean during World War II and the Hope Garden, a memorial to AIDS victims.

Chasing pigeons in Castle Clinton
There was also this piece, Fritz Koenig’s The Sphere, which once stood in the plaza of the World Trade Centre a few blocks away. It was damaged in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and five months later reinstalled in Battery Park along with an eternal flame, in memory of the victims.

Photo from Wired New York

Richard went to get our tickets for the ferry while Ryan had fun following the pigeons around.

We were just in time to catch the next ferry out so pigeon adventures had to be cut short. They were resumed when we came back to the park after seeing Lady Liberty.


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