Exploring Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, Central Park and a lot more besides in Midtown New York
29.05.2013 28 °C
Excluding a brief visit a few days previously to watch an exhibition soccer game at the Yankee Stadium, I had never visited New York despite it being one of those world cities like London and Paris that everyone who likes travelling feels they have to visit. With so much to see the plan was to cover New York in two stages doing Mid Manhattan first including the Empire State Building, Time Square and Central Park and then to come back another day to cover Lower Manhattan and see Wall Street and the 9/11 Memorial.
And so it was one Wednesday morning having got the train in from Summit New Jersey we emerged from the depths of New York Penn Railway Station underneath Madison Square Garden, perhaps not the prettiest station (that accolade probably belongs to the Grand Central Terminal we saw a bit later) but certainly the busiest train station in North America by some margin. Because we had a lot to see we had taken the precaution of booking express passes for the Empire State Building and went there first but disappointingly the top was shrouded in cloud and decided to leave it until later in the day hoping the skies would clear.
We then walked up New York's 7th Avenue (in New York avenues run north/south while streets, which tend to be smaller blocks, run east/west) towards Times Square, passing Macy's flagship store on 34th Street's Herald Square on the way. Macy's still advertises itself as "the largest store in the world" (although it was finally overtaken by a store in South Korea in 2009), an accolade a competitor tried to prevent it from earning when it was originally built back in 1902 by holding onto a corner of the block; Macy's just ignored this tactic and built around it and today the building (now occupied by "Sunglass Hut") carries Macy's "shopping bag" sign by lease arrangement.
Times Square at the junction of 7th Avenue and Broadway is the hub of New York's Theatre District, with bright lights and bustle everywhere you look. On the south side high above the billboard signs on the original New York Times Building is the famous New Year's Eve Ball which rises up its pole and drops at midnight each New Years' Eve when as many as a million reveller's pack the square. The northern triangle of the square is technically called Duffy's Square and contains statues to Chaplin Francis P. Duffy (1871-1932) of the Fighting 69th" (a famous New York Irish regiment in the US Army) and also George M. Cohan (1878-1942), an American playwright and song writer whose songs included "Over There", "Give my regards to Broadway" and "the Yankee Doodle Boy".
However a bit fun at the northern end of Times Square is the raised platform behind Father Duffy's Statue in front of the Hyundai Billboard. Here tourists are encouraged to stand and their faces are incorporated into the billboard sign displayed above them! Of course I had to have a go and managed to get my face into one of three cut-outs - my face in lights in Times Square (although I wasn't too sure about the skirt worn by my billboard incarnation)!
Having vowed to come back when it was dark to see the Times Square lights in all their splendour we made our way to New York's Grand Central Terminal. Completely rebuilt between 1903 and 1913, the station has been described as "the world's loveliest station" and is the largest in the world by number of platforms (44 platforms on two levels). The information booth in the main concourse is a perennial meeting place and the four faced clock above it an icon, even if isn't made of opal and worth $20 million as suggested by urban legend.
Outside traffic on Park Avenue (which on the map appears to go straight through the station) is taken up a ramp onto the ornate Park Avenue Viaduct that wraps itself around the first floor of the Railway Station, northbound to the east and southbound to the west, before coming back down again to ground level on the opposite side.
There's a lot to see in New York, more than I could ever hope to mention; next up was the Roman Catholic St. Patricks Cathedral built between 1858-1878 on 5th Avenue. Unfortunately it was yet another building on my trip shrouded in scaffolding as it is currently undergoing a 5 year $175 million renovation started in 2012. We did briefly pop in to have a look around and I was amused by "in the city that never sleeps everyone needs a place to pray" posters outside but the renovation work really made it impossible to properly look around.
Directly opposite St. Patrick's Cathedral is the north east corner of the Rockefeller Centre with its brass Atlas Statue outside; a large 22 acre retail, entertainment and office complex built during the Great Depression of the 1930s. At the heart of the complex is the 70 floor 872 foot (266 metre) high GE Building whose observation deck is the popular tourist attraction known as the "Top of the Rock" with stunning 360 degree views of the New York Skyscraper skyline. We however were saving that experience for ourselves for the Empire State Building.
Continuing walking north (we did a lot of walking in New York, I think I've still got the bruises!) we passed the Trump Tower (a 58 story skyscraper developed by Donald Trump) and next door to it the flagship Tiffany's Jewelry Store of 1961 film "Breakfast in Tiffany's" fame; not that you can have breakfast there, even if we managed to get past the tight security Tiffany's hasn't got a restaurant!
By now we were in need of some refreshment and with an Irish Bar on the corner of nearly every block in New York it was pretty obvious where we were going to stop for lunch... washed down with our first pint of the day of the black stuff
Suitably fed and watered our next stop was Columbus Circle at the south west corner of Central Park with its monument constructed in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the Americas. Opposite at the entrance to the park itself is an impressive monument to the sailors who died aboard the USS Maine when it blew up in Havana Harbour Cuba prompting the outbreak of the 1898 Spanish American War.
Close to Columbus Circle is the Lincoln Center, the largest performing arts complex in the world. I have to admit I was quite keen to see the Lincoln Center, just in case we found the New York School for the Performing Arts nearby on which the 1980s TV Show "Fame" popular in the UK was based. We unsuccessfully went looking for the location of its famous street dance scene and I've since found out we were indeed at the right location for the interior scenes but the building has long since been demolished and all the external scenes were actually filmed about a mile away on West 46th Street.
Before we entered Central Park itself we passed the Dakota Apartment Building where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived before he was murdered outside its south entrance in 1980. Across the road in Central Park the adjacent 2.5 acres has been dedicated to his memory with a mosaic as its centrepiece and renamed Strawberry Fields after the famous Beatles song "Strawberry Fields are forever".
Central Park itself is 2.5 miles (4 kilometres) long by 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometres) wide, a rectangular haven of greenery surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers. It's full of cliché's such as the horse drawn carriages taking tourists on sedate tours around the park and the street dancing on The Mall. There was even a young couple having wedding photographs taken on the Lower Bethesda Terrace in the heart of the park.
Central Park contains 2 ice skating rinks, 36 bridges and several artificially created but natural looking lakes. The Angel of the Waters Fountain is the centrepiece of the Lower Bethesda Terrace where it reaches the Lake which is very popular spot for boating with a fleet of 100 boats available for rent.
Most of the activity in Central Park is at its southern end and it gets quieter and less landscaped as you move north. About a third of the way up shortly after crossing the 79th Street Transverse is Belvedere Castle, a Victorian folly built in 1869 on top of Vista Rock, the park's second-highest natural elevation. The surrounding skyscrapers can been seen rising above the trees from almost anywhere in the park but the quintessential view of New York's Skyline from Central Park has to be from the top of the Great Lawn looking south.
It was now time to escape Central Park and make our way to the Upper East Side where we had an invite to see the construction of the new $4.45billion Second Avenue Subway (which I'll cover separately in my next entry). Exiting the park we passed the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Museum Mile of Fifth Avenue. It's the largest art museum in the USA and the most popular single-site tourist attraction in New York with over 5 million visitors per year but apart from a cursory glance at the Egyptian statues in the lobby we didn't stop.
We did stop however for another pint of Guinness, it would be criminal to ignore all the Irish Bars on every corner in New York! This one had the television on showing the England v Ireland soccer friendly live from Wembley Stadium in London. Being English born of Irish parents my team always wins when they play each other, regardless of which team it is! Although we couldn't stay to watch the final result was a 1-1 draw.