Underground watching the construction of the Second Avenue Subway then a quarter of a mile up enjoying the views from the Empire State before a final night time stop at Times Square
29.05.2013 28 °C
Experiencing the world famous view from the top of the Empire State Building had always been on my bucket list for New York but going 80 feet (24 metres) underground to witness the construction of the Second Avenue Subway was something I never anticipated even in my wildest dreams.
Having spent most of the day exploring Mid Manhattan largely on foot we arrived at the Second Avenue Subway Construction Site Office at 87th Street. The Second Avenue Subway is a $4.45 billion project to build the first new subway line in New York since the 1940s with its first trains due to run sometime in 2016. We had the opportunity to visit the site because my 2nd cousin who was showing me around New York is a civil engineer and one of his friends from college was working on the project and had invited us along.
Suitably kitted up in safety helmet, high-viz jacket and heavy duty boots we looked down the big hole in Second Avenue to the tunnel construction work underway below us and made our way down in the rather basic lift. This was the easy bit, what concerned me a bit more was that it was going to be a lot harder and scarier climbing back up to the surface on the series of steep caged ladders at our exit point!
Once down at construction level the tunnel was a hive of activity with larger diggers of all different shapes and sizes shuffling rubble while large skips travelled up and down from the surface. The tunnel was enormous and had original been bored out by a 300 foot (91 metre) long Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) with a 22 feet (6.7 metre) in diameter blade head. The cavern we had descended into was even larger as this was the site of what was going to be the new subway line's 86th Street Subway Station.
As we made our way along the tunnel it was rather mucky with lots of deep mud, I was rather glad we had been provided with proper boots rather than relying on our own! The tunnel itself was well lit with powerful flood lighting and dotted with various teams in high viz jackets and safety hats while various pieces of excavation machinery scurried back and forth along its length.
Having spent about 40 minutes underground we posed for some photographs before climbing back up to the surface on a series of scarily vertical caged ladders (I reckon there were about 75 mostly rather large rungs!). Having cleaned ourselves up and returned the safety kit we'd borrowed we thanked our hosts for their hospitality and enjoyed another pint of Guinness in a nearby bar (did I mention there seems to be an Irish Bar on every New York City corner?) before getting a yellow taxi back to the Empire State Building.
As described in my previous blog entry, we'd stopped at the Empire State Building earlier in the day but had put off going to the top until later in the hope that the clouds that had shrouded it in the morning would clear. Sure enough the sky had cleared and our express passes now came into their own as we were escorted past the several by now very long queues of people waiting to make their way up to the observation deck. It took us 10 minutes to reach the top a quarter of a mile above - I'm sure without our express passes it would have taken hours - money well spent, the extra expense was worth it just to be treated as VIPs.
The 1,250 feet (383 metre) high Empire State Building was completed in 1931 and stood as the world's tallest building for 40 years until the World Trade Center's North Tower was completed in 1972. There isn't a direct lift to the observation decks, instead you take an escalator to the first floor, then a lift to the 80th floor before finally taking a separate for lift for the final 6 floors to the Main Observation Deck on the 86th floor; there is a separate lift again for the final 16 floors up to the smaller enclosed Upper Observation Deck on the 102nd floor.
Once we reached the 86th floor the views were as awesome as expected with busyness of the people on the Observation Deck contrasting with the stillness of the city skyscrapers spread out below. It's corny but I couldn't help thinking of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meeting there in the final scenes of the 1993 film "Sleepless in Seattle".
The first landmark to catch my eye was the brilliantly art-deco Chrysler Building glistening to the north east, it was briefly the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1930 until the Empire State Building itself was finished in 1931. Less obvious was the green slab of the UN Building close by beside the East River.
As we moved around the Observation Deck the next view we could see was the finger of Lower Manhattan stretching out to the south dominated by the new One World Trade Centre (1,776 feet/541 metres high - no significance in that is there?) being built on the site of the old World Trade Center nearing completion. In contrast the Statue of Liberty close by on Ellis Island appeared so small it was difficult to make out.
Although the view was still awesome there weren't so many obvious landmarks looking west along 34th Street towards New Jersey. The only ones I could make out was Macy's (which we had walked past in the morning) almost directly below us and the large circular arena at Madison Square Garden a few blocks up on the left.
To the north you are aware of the presence of the rectangular greenery of Central Park beyond the band of skyscrapers to the north. The GE Building (aka the "Top of the Rocks" centrepiece of the Rockefeller Center) is the other popular skyscraper with an observation deck in New York and is situated just in front of Central Park (see close up).
We could have spent hours enjoying the views from the 86th floor but then realised our express passes also gave us access to the smaller and more intimate enclosed Observation Deck in the spire 16 floors above us on the 102nd floor. As on the other floors there were building staff dressed smartly in their purple uniforms in the background everywhere giving it an extra air of serenity.
The Observation Deck on the 102nd floor was a lot quieter than the 86th floor and the views noticeably a bit higher however taking photographs of the views such as southwards towards Lower Manhattan was more difficult because despite the extra colour of the evening sunlight it was reflecting in the glass.
Having taken in the full 360 degree views from the Observation Deck on the 102nd floor we were able to just make out the bright billboards of Times Square tucked away amongst its surrounding tall buildings to the north west; it was starting to get dark - guess where we were going back to next?
Before making our way back over to Times Square on New York's famed Underground Subway to see it lit up at night time we were steered through the gift shop and display about the construction of the Empire State Building on the 80th floor. Amongst the displays were posters from the 1933 film "King Kong"; King Kong's classic climb of the Empire State Building and fight with the aeroplanes finally makes an appearance!
By the time we back to Times Square it was dark and as hoped we were able to see its famed moving illuminated billboards at their best. When we had visited earlier it felt like we were amongst other tourists but now we were mixing with evening theatre goers on their way to performances at the 40 500+ seat theatres that make up the Broadway Theatre District centred around Times Square. The most obvious Broadway show was the "Lion King" on at the Minskoff Theatre on Times Square itself but glancing down other streets you could see other theatres such as the New Amsterdam and New Victory on West 42nd Street.
By now we were pretty tired and stopped for something to eat in Greenwich Village, considered New York's Bohemian district. We walked through Washington Square past its famed fountain and Arch (built in 1892) before finally making our way back exhausted to New Jersey. We'd managed to pack an awful lot in, it had been a very long day!