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Wonderful Town

New York City, USA

New York’s personality is more distinctive and recognizable than that of any other city in the world.

Note the use of the word ‘personality’ there – not ‘atmosphere’ or ‘vibe’. New York has definite personality. For all of its problems it also has more of a community spirit than other metropolises of its size – this becomes apparent when you consider the reasons that most people still refer to it as a ‘town’. In many respects, that’s because it’s a settlement of several million that has small town characteristics.

Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Downtown
Brooklyn Bridge and Downtown Manhattan

A lot of this is to do with the fact that in a lot of ways New York is not part of the United States of America. Of course, in a political and geographical sense it’s North American through and through. It’s just that it has a distinctly different feel from most of the country that surrounds it. That probably has a lot to do with the city’s history. It’s traditionally a city of immigrants. Over the years the population has been swollen by the Irish, Jews, Hispanics, Afro-Caribbeans and people of a dozen other races and origins. It remains one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth.

Statue of LibertySo what do you do while you’re in New York, and what do you see? Well, if you’re staying for a short while probably one of the things you should consider doing is taking in a show. Broadway is packed with some of the greatest theaters in America. The traditional Broadway ‘show’ is, of course, a musical. The great avenue has been the breeding ground of some of the great popular music of the twentieth century, and some of America’s greatest songwriters have made fortunes here. During the immediate postwar years Broadway was regarded – wrongly – as a hotbed of communist activity. This was probably because most of its greatest composers, including George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, were first or second generation expatriate Russian Jews – the city, even then, was living up to the motto carved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Times SquareWhile you meditate on the irony that Moscow was the birthplace of modern American popular music you can take a boat trip out to Ellis Island and admire ‘Lady Liberty’ herself. The island was the first part of America that new immigrants from the ‘old world’ set foot on during the huge wave of immigration that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It only takes a few minutes to get there by ferry from Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan island. There’s now a great museum on the island, along with a ‘wall of honor’ commemorating some of those who made the long journey from Europe to found American families. It’s estimated that one in three modern Americans have ancestors whose first steps on US soil were on Ellis Island: walking around the echoing arrivals hall is an almost eerie experience. You can’t help thinking that the poverty stricken Europeans who arrived here a century ago, however ‘tempest-tossed’ they may have been, had a rather better sight to greet them than the modern refugees and seekers of asylum who get processed through the plastic and concrete terminals of JFK.

Manhattan SkylineIf you want to eat out in New York, you should try the local specialty: everything. Just about every conceivable world cuisine is on offer here,. You could move between restaurants for a truly cosmopolitan meal: a Somalian starter, a Micronesian main course and a Scandinavian dessert. It’s impossible to pick out any single establishment for review. There are two things, however, you must try to ensure that you have the complete New York experience: a hotdog and a bagel. New York street hotdogs are not always what you’d call great eating, but having one is part of the city’s cultural experience. All vendors are (in principle) licensed and inspected, so you can be reasonably confident that you’re not going to suffer too many ill effects. Bagelries, one of the many legacies of the city’s huge Jewish population – the largest outside Israel – abound. You can eat bagels with all kinds of filling, but there’s little to beat cream cheese.

It’s difficult to say how much New York has changed since 9/11 – as far as the tourist is concerned, the answer is ‘probably not that much’, at least in terms of some of the city’s more timeless qualities. Security is tighter, maybe. But New York is still one of the great city experiences of world, and one that everyone should take part in at least once in their lives.

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