Notes from Suburbia – Is New York the Greatest City in the World?

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Manhattan, New York City
New York City. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

What’s so great about the city of New York? Crowded and dirty are some of the words that are often used to describe it. Digging deeper you will see the people turning up their noses at the city are not immune to its charms after all. They whip out their cell phones as much as the guy with the Nikon, catching a New York moment here, a gothic doorway there.

Right after stepping out of the Grand Central Terminal, a train station that is instrumental in shaping the country since its inception on Feb 2 (1913), we were greeted by the all-too-familiar thick and smoky city air. Steam from the subway grates rose up to meet the whiff of the kebab stand on the curb, and the cold, heavy March air held on to it longer than it should. Walking down the few blocks (from 42nd St to the 61st) played out like a well-orchestrated play. Walk. Stop at crossing. Wait for walk sign. Or don’t. Check map on phone. Cross. Walk again. In between a cacophony of honks and chatter. Anyone who has marched a few blocks in this well-planned city will attest to the fact.

Big brands lined the streets, and architectural marvels, both modern and medieval reached out to the sky, gray and dull as it was on the day we visited. For us, being from the suburbs, it was a leisurely Saturday, as we took in the sights and smells of city life, getting away from the complacency of the unremarkable and the unexceptional.

I understand that for many, a trip to this city means getting on a plane, and they want to hit all the talked-about spots and get all the right pictures. If you are one of them, please go to the official city tourism site.

Even on an ordinary spring day when the branches hung bare, the flowers were yet to bloom, and the ground was covered in slush from blizzards past, the city attracted its usual share of people. They stopped in their tracks to look up, clutching phones and cameras, hoping to catch the highest arch or the tallest tower. It’s one of those things that the locals take in their stride. It’s the price you pay for living in the Big Apple.

We continued to walk till we reached Central Park, spread out over 843 acres, green and inviting, hemmed in by the surrounding gray and black. The ratio of green to grayscale is something to be proud of, especially when you compare New York to other top cities of the world. Not one to go to zoos (we like our animals free in the wild), we made an impromptu decision to visit this city sanctuary. Apart from the grizzly bears, Betty and Veronica, the rest of the animals seemed to be in sync with city life. Since 1984, the Wildlife Conservation Society is in charge of the place, and they have added a domestic animal area, which seemed quite popular with the toddlers. We had gone there mainly for the penguins because my son is fascinated with the wobbly creatures.

Central Park, New York City
Red Pandas. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©
Central Park, New York City
Photos by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Always one for a scramble, a steep set of rocks, a mini-hill if you will, amidst the flat park, is met by delight by most kids, and well, grown-ups. Did you know bouldering is a thing in Central Park? Other activities in the park include the usual vendors, the artists, the bubble-makers, the music-makers, the roller-skaters, and the dog-walkers.

Central Park, New York City
Street performance in progress. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Then there was a bunch of street-performers who made a big hue and cry over a long jump. People gathered around, clapped, cheered, waited, got shoved into a line, willingly became the butt of many a wisecrack, and basically wasted a lot of time for a mediocre performance. And yes, they parted with their money as well. When I was there, there were people from Portugal, Wisconsin, and India, to name a few. If I were you, I would walk right past the unnecessary fanfare.

Central Park, New York City.
Central Park. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Not a fan of the horse-drawn carriages, we opted to walk back to the station, the Grand Central Terminal. As the 1913 brochure stated, it is “a place where one delights to loiter, admiring its beauty and symmetrical lines — a poem in stone.” The then chief engineer of New York Central Railroad, William J. Wilgus, came up with the daring idea of demolishing the existing station with its steam engines and replacing it with a monumental structure and electric trains.

I saw many photographers pointing their cameras upwards, trying to capture the artwork spread across the station’s ceiling. Try as I may, I couldn’t do justice to the concave ceiling with its constellations of 2500 stars and the precise shade of blue , as conceived by the French artist, Paul Helleu. Also, we were famished from all the walking.

Grand Central Terminal, New York City
Photos by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Last summer Vanderbilt Hall got a makeover. Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer, a proponent of New Nordic Cuisine, transformed the former waiting area into a quiet and cozy food hall. It’s a corner inside the station where the bustle comes to a screeching halt. In the glow of chandeliers, pugs loll underneath chairs, old friends greet each other, wine glasses are set down, and smorrebrods (open-faced sandwiches) are devoured. We sat down to salmon and cured meats on dark, nutty, tender rye. Although the grain bar looked appetizing, we opted for dough and air, with a glass of chardonnay, and a can of Danish beer.

Grand Central Terminal. Great Northern Food Hall.
Great Northern Food Hall. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Every big city in the world has classical architecture, highly celebrated cuisine, art, commerce, towering buildings, throbbing streets, and diverse people. As does New York. Yet, it is a city unlike any other. When you are on its streets, you can’t drift aimlessly like in some archaic European city. You are on the Manhattan grid, the first of its kind, established in 1811. Monolithic and navigation-friendly, love it or hate it, it’s the rectangular blocks of streets that prod people with a sense of direction and purpose.

And what is life, devoid of either.

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