The many personalities of New York

In what was the biggest trip we have done since moving to London, Richard and I flew over the Atlantic to spend a week in New York City. This was the first trip to the United States for both of us, and also our first non-European trip in a while. New York was so many things, but mainly it was incredible. There is an enormous amount to do in New York and we were utterly exhausted from trying to fit in as much as we could. I’m bursting to tell you all about it so this will be the first installment in a five part New York series – enjoy!

 

During our stay in New York we lived and spent virtually all of our time in Manhattan, one of the five boroughs that comprise this city of 8.4 million busy people. Within Manhattan itself there are several famous districts and neighbourhoods that each have distinct characteristics. After our experience, I would recommend neighbourhood walking tours. They’re an efficient way to understand the background of a district and notice things that may seem insignificant if you were walking by without a guide giving context.

 

Chelsea/Meatpacking District

On the western side of Midtown Manhattan lies the Meatpacking District which is an incredible food hub and is one of our favourite areas. This neighbourhood has undergone several identity make-overs; as the name suggests, it was once where the slaughterhouses and butchers of the city were located. New Yorkers would come to the area for their meat purchases but never linger on account of the overwhelming stench. Today, evidence of this time exists in the distinctly industrial design and iron exterior awnings marking buildings that were once slaughter houses.

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A great place to explore and look down on the area is the Highline. Previously it was an elevated railway allowing cargo to be brought in and out of factories in the district. Now it’s a redesigned green space, perfect for relaxing and look down on this fascinating neighbourhood.

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Following technological advances in transportation and refrigeration, it wasn’t necessary for all these meat packers to be in one place so the industry disbanded and the area became a generally derelict and undesirable area to live. What sprung up was a hub of crime. The price of accommodation kept going up though, forcing people to move into the area and causing a bit of a revival. Remarkably, when Samantha from Sex and the City moved to there, it caused an influx of a particular demographic into the area! These people needed cafes, bookshops and other trendy places which gradually built up the profile of Chelsea. And then one day, Google moved in. After 11 years in the district, the Google office now covers an astounding 40% of the neighbourhood’s office space. Over four plain brick buildings, 4500 Google employees work hard and then head out to the multitude of celebrity chef restaurants to eat and drink their nights away. The Meatpacking district is now a definitive hip spot with sky high rents and a growing tech industry presence.

 

Financial District

Cue: Money, Money, Money by Abba

If there is one thing most people will associate with New York, it’s Wall Street. The financial district is one of the oldest parts of the city, dating from when it was under Dutch control and called New Amsterdam. Immediately I noticed that the buildings are truly enormous; skyscrapers worthy of the name. The streets are narrow and winding like those commonly found across Europe. Together, these characteristics create a dark and confined space that isn’t altogether pleasant!

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Sitting at the southern tip of Manhattan, the buildings make for a beautiful and impressive skyline. We heard from several guides about Manhattan schist which is a super strong type rock forming the bedrock of the island. It is particularly dense under the Financial District and in Midtown which is why those two areas can, and are, dominated by gigantic skyscrapers.

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We joined the crowed at the infamous Charging Bull statue and relived countless movies when we saw Wall Street itself and the Stock Exchange. The impact of the Financial District on visitors is relatively intangible; the buildings are buildings – but people inside hold the strings to so much of our economic world, it’s inconceivable.

 

Soho

If you ever wondered what ‘Soho’ means, we found out it stands for ‘South of Houston Street’. This style of naming areas is clearly a trend in New York with Tribeca (Triangle Below Canal Street), Nolita (North of Little Italy) and Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), to name a few.

Just like the Meatpacking District, Soho wasn’t always as cool as it is now. Also known as the Garment District, it was once home to clothing factories where working conditions were incredibly harsh. These days it is full of beautiful buildings, trendy cafes (including the infamous home of the cronut, Dominique Ansel Bakery), and extravagant rents.

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Little Italy

A whole host of migrants from Europe flooded to New York to start fresh lives and a significant number of them were from Italy. They brought with them food that would become an integral part of any New Yorker’s diet, and of course ‘the family’ institution. These days it is safe to wander Little Italy at any time of the day or night. Efforts to clean up the streets are largely attributed to the efforts of Lieutenant Joseph “Joe” Petrosino who moved to New York and became a police officer. His aim was to ensure New York avoided the same fate of his home in Italy where organised crime was the law. Today, Little Italy is a cute place to visit; a bit crowded, with small independent shops and restaurants that had a European homely feel.

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Chinatown

Both Richard and I found that Chinatown in New York is the best Chinatown we have ever visited. It is a real place where the local Chinese population live, eat and socialise. At times it is easy to feel that you’re actually in China which is quite weird! From Little Italy, you can turn and corner and find you’ve skipped continents instantly. Once upon a time this district was also plagued by organised crime. One little narrow street holds the title of the street where the most murders occurred in the city’s history. It’s safe now, of course!

 

DUMBO

Across from Manhattan is a small neighbourhood known as Dumbo (as mentioned before, it’s an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass – ‘overpass’ added because DUMB didn’t have the right ring to it!). The place is full of industrial buildings that have been or are in the process of being turned into cool-people places. Overhead is the inescapable Brooklyn Bridge with trains regularly thundering past.

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If you like brick with some exposed black iron detailing, this is the town for you. It’s been very nicely done up and is now, as you might guess, an increasingly popular area to live. Along the waterfront is a green space with playgrounds and plenty of seating. There is also a carousel inside a glass box, for rides in all weather. The carousel itself dates from 1922 where it was in Idora Park in Ohio. In 1984 it was fully restored and the elaborate decorative horses look really quite romantic.

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Theatre District

Theatres in New York are densely collected into a few blocks and reflect an active arts scene. We took a tour passing several iconic theaters including an allegedly cursed theatre that even today, has trouble booking shows!

We were surprised to learn that there is a minimum pay boundary for any Broadway actor – $1605 per week. It was also quite a shock to realise just how much it costs to put on a show, and consequently, how important it is for a show to do well. The Theatre District still retains design elements from the 30’s with bright marques and big light bulbs, giving it a classic film feel and sense of nostalgia (can you feel nostalgia for a time that was never part of your life?).

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Despite our finest efforts, it was impossible to visit all the areas of Manhattan and the other boroughs of New York. What we were able to see however, provided a fantastic snapshot of the diversity New York has to offer. Stay tuned for the upcoming posts covering the most iconic landmarks, museums and experiences we fit into our trip along with an all important round of up of food stops!

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