Drama in a Miniature Metropolis

This is the sixth time I’ve holidayed in New York in the past 12 years.  It has always seemed colossal.  During my first visit in December 2002 I walked into Central Park with English friends and after a reasonably short time we approached some residential buildings on the edge of the park.  We stopped to orientate ourselves and determined after some discussion that we must have arrived in Harlem, on the park’s northern boundary.  After all, we’d been walking quite a while and despite walking the length of the park already, we were quite lost in the immensity of it.  A woman nearby interrupted us to explain that we were looking at apartment buildings on the West Side, and had in fact, hardly ventured into the park at all.  As it turned out, all we’d done was walk somewhat diagonally across the 0.8km width of the park, rather than the 4km length.  Although the distance we walked was probably much further courtesy of the various winding paths, waterways, rocky outcrops, bridges, parks-within-the-park, etc which we traversed.

Another example of the seeming magnitude of New York is the way I used the subway to get around, until this visit.  I went in and out of underground stations daily, assuming that everything was very far away and I needed to be transported there.  This happened to me when I first moved to London 25 years ago.  I remember walking through tunnels underneath Charing Cross Station to transfer between two tube lines in order to reach Embankmemt Station.  When I came out of Embankment, Charing Cross Station appeared about 50 metres up the lane from the entrance into Embankment Station.  I must have walked tenfold the distance underground than if I had exited the station and walked up Villiers St.  It’s very easy to get things wrong like this in a city you don’t know.  Pondering this today, I think it has probably taken me an accumulated average of about 3 months to become oriented enough in each of these two big cities, for things to shrink-to-scale.

This time around I have started to grasp the scale of New York and it really isn’t as colossal as I once perceived.  It’s big, there is no doubt about that.  Yet, you can walk many distances which I previously thought needed a subway or other transport.  Today I walked from our street in SoHo, up to midtown on 48th street.  That’s more than 48 blocks and it only took an hour.  According to Google maps, it’s a distance of about 5km, so my round trip was a 10km stroll.  Mostly along 6th Ave and then Broadway.  Interestingly, at Broadway the landscape is quite distinct depending on which area you’re in.  I walked past Washington Square Park, up to Union Square which I entered from an angle I didn’t recognise, as I’ve always come out of the subway exits.  Once these parks, which are both part of the New York University scene, seemed a long way from each other and I had only ever traveled between them on the subway.  Today the walk between the two took about quarter of an hour.  I had no idea there was a statue of Ghandi in Union Square, but there is!  Today there was also a Love Messenger performing an obscure dance in the winter air in his undies!

At around 20th Street the surroundings become a little less salubrious for a few blocks, with groups of young black men hanging around the corners, apparently doing nothing but cat-calling to attractive young women who happen across their path.  Thanks to my obsession with The Wire (set in Baltimore), I had them pegged, correctly or not, as drug dealers.  The best conversation I heard was on the corner of 28th:
“Yo bro, what’s your name?”
“Nah bro, what’s your name?”
“Nigga!  It’s Concrete!”
At around 30th Street the crowds start to thicken and by 34th Street you have to stand your ground or risk being pushed and shoved from every direction.  This continues to at least 50th Street, when it thins out a little again up to Central Park, where there’s enough space for everyone.  Most of this area is the part of New York that I have developed an intense dislike of, mainly due to the crowds.  Yet there are many worthy places to visit in this area, the most obvious being Broadway for the theatre but also historic places of interest such as the magnificent New York Public Library; Grand Central Station; United Nations; Museum of Modern Art.  So any visit to New York requires the irritating experience of taking yourself into Midtown.

On the way home tonight I developed a new sense of Greenwich Village, which continues to confuse me.  As I’ve said before, for years I’ve envisaged the Greenwich Village – SoHo proximity in a particular and disoriented way.  We’ve always walked in a certain direction to get between the two neighbourhoods, which never seemed to make sense in my mind and if I go alone, I always get lost because the two neighbourhoods are never where I think they are from each other.  Walking home in the dark this evening, the Greenwich Village lights above Bleecker Street were in exactly the opposite direction than where my mind envisaged they should be.  However, with Washington Square Park now placed firmly in my mind, directly above SoHo and not off to either the East or West as I’ve consistently but unsuccessfully tried to comprehend, I think I may finally have re-oriented my confused brain.  I guess I’ll find out on tomorrow’s jaunt about the streets!  Getting lost in New York is a part of the fun anyway, as my daily confusions can attest.

Today’s holiday treat was the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Walter Kerr Theatre on West 48th Street.  Broadway’s theatres seem to be much smaller and less remarkable than those in the West End.  London’s  theatres often have beautiful exterior architecture; grand and ornamental lobbies with plenty of standing room for milling crowds before and after the show as well as during interval; large stages with vast orchestra pits; and large auditoriums often seating thousands.  In contrast, Broadway theatres have unremarkable exteriors with the exception of their flashing billboards; they have small, basic foyers of about two metres wide, leading from the street straight through to the auditorium which always seems to seat hundreds rather than thousands.  The stages I can remember seeing on Broadway have all been small.  This simple difference makes theatre-going in the West End quite distinct from theatre-going on Broadway.  Both theatrelands attract more than ten million patrons each year.  As both productions I’ve seen on this visit have comprised all-English performers, I assume there is some sort of commercial collaboration between the two cross-Atlantic, billion-dollar enterprises.

Another difference about the theatre in 2014, from my time as a regular theatregoer in London during the early to mid 1990s, is cost.  Today if you want good seats on Broadway you will pay between US$100-$150, although it’s possible to get cheaper seats and also possible to pay significantly more for premium seats of choice, depending on the show, time, media acclaim and lead actors, etc.  During my time in London I don’t believe I ever  paid more than £10 per ticket, meaning I could attend a show on both Friday and Saturday nights, which I did for about two years.  At that time I was familiar with every show playing in the West End but at this time I’ve had to curb my attendances to two for the month, as a special treat, which has cost me US$300!  (I’ve also seen some comedy and music at a fraction of the cost of Broadway tickets).  My guess is that this massive cost increase over 20+ years has to do with a combination of factors including demand  – perhaps live mainstream theatre wasn’t as popular with the masses 20 years ago?  Live theatre is now a popular career move for famous screen actors who likely drive costs by demanding high incomes.  Bradley Cooper is currently performing the lead on Broadway’s recently-opened The Elephant Man at The Booth theatre on West 45th Street.  Ticket prices range from US$90 (advance purchase, certain seats only) to US$190.  The show is sold-out.

Broadway is not the only sell-out event on Manhattan.  Getting seats in a restaurant on New Years Eve was quite a triumph.  We have 6pm reservations, the latest we could get, so we’ll be home well and truly before the real celebrations begin.  But with a gourmet meal under our belt, we can then wander back to SoHo and sip champagne in The Loft for my final night here.  Thankfully returning to Cambodia after 10 weeks away is a happy plan which will make my departure from New York a reasonably soft blow.

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