The New York City Metro is assiduous, a complex arrangement of labyrinthine tunnels animated with gypsies, musicians and the vibrancy of diverse and unremitting crowds. I find it hard to imagine that the system actually began as a series of overhead rail networks and disconnected suburban train lines back in the 19th century. Today it’s an underworld, a city beneath a city where 1.5 billion people every year are pumped through its dark arteries like blood cells through veins.
I’m catching my train from 33rd street, that’s your first clue as to where I’m going. Leaning against a steel pillion covered in a patchwork of posters I can see the arthropodal frame of the connected carriages rattling down the tunnel towards me. A blustering fan hanging from the platform ceiling is trying to offer the crowd some relief from the humidity as we wait. The underground can be your friend or foe depending on the seasons that are so pronounced in New York, white winters and searing summers. The latter we’re emerging from now, weeks of wilting heat will in a matter of days become perfectly temperate before we plunge into snow storms that blanket the city like layer cake icing. I’ve never in one place experienced a more palpable set of four seasons.
The corner of this sprawling metropolis I’m heading to is home to some of New York’s most infamous icons. Frank Sinatra and baseball were both born here, but it’s not in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Today you’ll find the likes of ‘A-Rod’ and Eli Manning residing here, but it’s not downtown Manhattan.
NYC is inescapably multifarious. There are so many cultures and sub-cultures that if it weren’t for all the patriotic symbols and landmark buildings it might be difficult to decipher which part of the world you were in. The boroughs are both distinct and schismatic. Within each city slice are the villages and districts, unique and even territorial in the way they carve out their niches. Their borders are obvious demarcation lines, perhaps none more abrupt than 96th street where the Upper East Side, the pinnacle of the city’s wealth meets Harlem’s El Barrio, a mostly Hispanic community of working class families often struggling to stay above the poverty line.
The train’s carriage I’m standing in is a colorful petri dish of humanity. People from all walks of life are crammed into this steel cylinder, swaying to its motions as it winds it’s way beneath the Hudson. At one end of the carriage a couple of Mexican’s are strumming enthusiastically on their guitars and singing folk songs for our spare change. Opposite me is a tall black youth, his giant athletic frame huddled over a miniature ghetto blaster that is thumping out Lil Wayne. At the other end of the carriage is an evangelist, yelling out his salvation message, scolding people’s sinfulness and wielding his Bible like a sword. Part of me is inspired by his courage, another cringes a little at his confrontational style which makes me wonder where his distant predecessors the Apostles balanced their approach? It’s an interesting juxtaposition, those that want to be heard, and those that want to envelop their own personal space quietly.
My stop arrives and I move up the stairs amongst a river of people. As I reach the street level I’m greeted by a fresh breeze that rolls in off the Hudson and washes away the residue of Manhattan’s sticky gridiron. I’m soon walking along what is really this neighborhood’s Mona Lisa Smile, a tree-lined esplanade that runs the length of the village. It’s flanked on one side by a river front and finger wharfs covered in greenery, on the other are restaurants and bars that open up onto the view I’m taking in as I amble my way up town. I’m yet to find a better place to look out at the Manhattan city skyline. In one panoramic view you can appreciate most of the city’s famous buildings of which so many are monuments to the era they were erected in. The two that blow my mind today are 48 Wall Street and the American International Building, they’re imperialist skyscrapers crowned with palaces. But there’s obviously the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, enduring symbols of Art Deco and the 1920s and 30s, Town Hall from imperialist era, Seagram from International, Hearst from Eco. It’s a skyline second to none and it’s the backdrop of this lucky little locale.
Streets are wider here too, and flanked with terraces, open shop fronts, farmer’s markets, bars, restaurants and cafes. The band Franz Ferdinand renamed their song ‘Jacqueline‘ to include the name of this village. I’m not sure which is the better aphorism to take from the lyrics: “Sometimes these eyes, Forget the face they’re peering from”, or “It’s always better on holiday, So much better on holiday.” New Yorker’s with a pretentious streak might go with the former. For me? Well, the band renamed the song “Better in Hoboken“.
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