Waking Up in the City That Never Sleeps

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December 9th 2010
Published: December 9th 2010
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Upon reflecting on my impression of New York City, I came to the conclusion that it is a city of contradictions. It is probably the city that characterizes the United States more than any other, yet it is amazingly diverse with experts estimating as many as 800 languages being spoken there. It is so modern, we tend to forget its historical significance as the first capital of our nation and the site of the inauguration of our first President. On the surface, it is incredibly crowded and noisy, yet there are beautiful places where one can experience moments of deep reflection and, yes, even solitude. Its people are brash, busy and boisterous, yet they treat others with kindness, patience, and respect.

My exploration of New York began with a trip just north of the City to Hyde Park, to witness something of the "gilded age," when "old money" and "new money" collided and the United States became the industrial giant of the world. Mark Twain coined the phrase "gilded age," to make fun of the ostentation of this period, and it is perfectly reflected at the Vanderbilt Mansion, a representation of new money. Although the mansion is not overly large, the furnishings and decor are over the top and marble is used from floor to ceiling. Who puts a bust of Zeus and Hera in their living room or hangs a tapestry with a completely fabricated coat of arms and embroidered crown over their bed or furnishes their houses with huge "throne chairs" that can't even be used comfortably? Evidently, the Vanderbilts thought it all necessary to prove their wealth and power. Poor Cornelius Vanderbilt, who started his transportation empire as a ferry captain, lived modestly his entire life and built a fortune that would equal $145 billion in today's dollars, had his entire wealth squandered away by his descendants within two generations. Although the 1929 Stock Market Crash helped a lot, I could see how this could happen by looking at the Vanderbilt Mansion and knowing this was just a "little summer getaway" place for two people with no children, and who had four other residences far more opulent than this one in Hyde Park.

The next stop was the Roosevelt Mansion... old money. And, the difference between it and the Vanderbilt Estate is seen immediately upon entering the house. This home is warm and inviting with wood columns, floors and staircases. The impression is one of understated wealth, with the primary family room being a library with overstuffed chairs and sofas pulled close to the fireplace and windows surrounding the room. There are homey touches, such as a case that holds FDR's collection of stuffed birds. The only modern "luxury" was the elevator which was actually necessary for FDR to get to the upper floors and, interestingly, was operated manually with a rope and pulley system, because of his fear of fire and being trapped upstairs with an inoperable electrical elevator.

Last stop was Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt's home, and the only residence of a First Lady that is protected by the National Park Service, thanks to President Jimmy Carter. In this small, unassuming, extremely modest cottage, Mrs. Roosevelt entertained royalty, heads of state, foreign diplomats and political leaders. The home is an eloquent statement about a woman who believed herself unremarkable, yet, during her life, was the most powerful woman in America and, almost 50 years after her death, is still one of the most admired women in world history. Her parlor pays homage to the people she admired and loved, rather than serving as a personal statement of her own greatness, to the point that, on her desk, she proudly displayed a nameplate given to her by a boys' group and on which her name is misspelled. Our tour guide spoke of her with a reverence that brought tears to my eyes. If ever there was a woman that young girls would do well to emulate, it is, and always will be, Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, "A little simplification would be the first step toward rational living, I think."

From the display of the self-important to the reality of true greatness, the tour of Hyde Park will forever stay with me as a symbol of the importance of how we live as opposed to what we have.

The drive back to the City along Highway 9 was a spectacularly scenic tour of the Hudson River Valley, especially the section of the highway that winds through Bear Mountain Park. It is hard to believe such lush forests and mountains are possible just two hours from the bustle of New York City. The fall colors were so vivid to be almost neon and, at one point, I was surprised suddenly with a magnificent tunnel carved directly through the bedrock of the mountain.

The original plan was to visit Ellis Island. However, after seeing the long line of people waiting for the ferry, I opted for the National Museum of the American Indian, one of three facilities supported by the Smithsonian, dedicated to the preservation of the Native American culture and a labor of love of George Gustav Heye, a wealthy New York industrialist. Luckily, one of the main exhibits was "A Song for the Horse Nation," which featured information and artifacts of the Indian Nation near and dear to me... the Comanches. Needless to say, I went a little crazy in the museum gift shop.

I didn't want to visit Ground Zero; I still cry at the remembrances and images. But, I visited one of the examples of God's grace that awful day... St. Paul's Chapel, only 1/2 a block from the World Trade Center, and where a colonial-era cemetery had been covered with debris from the 9/11 attack, but the chapel was miraculously spared. It was instrumental in the coordination of rescue efforts and provided a physical, spiritual and emotional haven for firemen and policemen on that day.

Trinity Church was the next stop. The current structure is actually the third Trinity Church, the first having been destroyed in the Great New York City Fire of 1776 and the second torn down because the structure was severely damaged by heavy snow in the winter of 1838. (Interestingly, the pirate Captain William Kidd helped build the original church.) The first thing you see are massive bronze doors with relief sculptures of biblical scenes. Upon entering, the stained-glass chancel window behind the altar took my breath away. The church is classic gothic architecture with dark wood interiors and pews, vaulted ceilings, marble floor, and carved, walk-in pulpit. Throughout the church are memorials and marble sarcophagi commemorating the faithful of the church, with a small connected chapel to the right of the altar for meditation and prayer. The entire church is reminiscent of medieval times.

A walking tour of Chinatown and Little Italy offered me a glimpse of the New York of my imagination... crowded streets, vendors hawking knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags, noise and movement everywhere. I'll never be able to truly enjoy Chinese food again after eating an amazing dish of General Tsao chicken in a small Chinese-operated diner where they served perfectly brewed tea automatically, like most American restaurants serve water. Delicious on a cool, blustery day. A quick ride on the subway and I emerged at Times Square where I saw Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones perform in "Driving Miss Daisy." I ended the evening with REAL New York cheesecake and coffee with Bailey's.

A quick ride to Gramercy Park, a residential district for artists, historically and currently, with it's gorgeously landscaped, but off-limits park, visible by the general public only through a wrought iron fence and surrounded by beautiful old Victorian mansions; then a taxi ride to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I've never seen a museum so big. It would take a full day, if not longer, to see everything in this museum. In fact, its gift shop alone is almost the size of most museums I've visited. Unfortunately, I had but a couple of hours before needing to be at the airport for the flight home, so I limited my tour to the Expressionists. The highlight of The Met was the bamboo structure on the top of the building, a maze through which visitors could explore and climb and get a spectacular view of Central Park.

My final take on New York... for me, it was all about time, space, and movement — literally and metaphorically; however, it definitely should be experienced by everyone. It is my belief that every person's New York experience would be unique, because so much of it depends on the perceptions you take with you.


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