Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tourist New York Experience

A small group of us Texans got together for dinner recently with a mutual friend who now lives in New York City, and was back in Dallas for the Christmas holidays.

Whenever my friend and I get together, we always compare notes about our Big Apple experiences, with hers being so much fresher than mine, yet remarkably, not as different as one might imagine.  As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and New York City is one of those places where that saying never fails to prove true.

It was expensive when I lived there, and it's even more expensive now.  The diverse personalities it attracted then are still attracted there today.  People in old apartments still have to run their window-unit air conditioners in the winter to combat the sweltering steam heat being pumped through radiators from basement boilers that only know two settings:  on and off.  If you open your windows - even a crack - too much soot from the city's dirty air comes inside your apartment.

There are always interesting stories from the subway to tell.  Always new adventures to relate.  And always, the same old complaints, about the price of movies and shampoo and tolls, slothful unionized workers, and tourists.

You know you've become a legitimate New Yorker when you start complaining about the tourists!

These Little Town Blues

Ahh, yes, those wonderful sidewalk-clogging, subway-bumbling, map-toting, photo-taking, suburbanites and internationals who figure the $300 they spend per night in the city's overpriced hotels entitles them to treat Gotham's residents like bit players in a real-world urban theme park.

Nearly 53 million tourists visited New York City in 2012, spending nearly $37 billion during their stay, which funded over 300,000 jobs for New Yorkers.  The City of New York estimates that tourism spared each of the municipality's households $1,575 in taxes.  Among international travelers, New York is the fifth-most-popular urban destination.  By comparison, sun-soaked Los Angeles is merely 20th.

With all that's at stake from its tourism industry, business-savvy New Yorkers know they can't begrudge their guests the opportunity to see what makes their home such a desirable place to visit - even if living there is somewhat less desirable, partly because of all those tourists!  But then again, the incessant irony that can be found in almost every nook and cranny of Gotham is part of its charm.  New Yorkers would love to live without tourists, but as frightfully expensive as the place is already, living without tourists would make it even more expensive.

Crime and Punishment

When I lived there, back in the early 1990's, crime was at all-time highs, and tourism, while a large component of the city's economy, wasn't nearly as prominent as it is today.  Yet even then, city residents grumbled about all of the sightseers.

After a family from the deep South had shopped in Trump Tower, they were jumped by muggers right outside the glitzy shopping center's doors on Fifth Avenue, and the father was stabbed to death when he didn't produce his wallet fast enough.  Apparently, the family, flush with both cash and excitement over their visit to the big city, had gone through the shops in Trump Tower, flashing their money and blathering in their Southern accents, which caught the attention of some crooks looking for easy prey.

When news broke throughout the city of the murder, in broad daylight, on one of Manhattan's most famous and congested thoroughfares, I was appalled.  But native New Yorkers scoffed.

"Serves them right, showing cash in public."

"That's what country hicks get when they don't know how to behave in New Yawk."

"What idiot shops in a place like Trump Tower and acts like it's their first time to spend money?"

I quickly learned that tourists won't get any sympathy from New Yorkers if they don't follow some basic survival tips.

Today, the city enjoys a far lower crime rate than when I lived there, and of course, that's a good thing.  However, just because the place is a lot safer now, should that translate into apathy when it comes to protecting yourself from even petty crime?  No, you probably won't get murdered, or even shot, during your stay, but just because its crime rate is low doesn't mean there is no crime.  After all, no matter where you live, crime rates are all relative, until you become a victim.  And there are still plenty of crime victims in New York City.

For example, in 2013, the city experienced over 20,000 felony assaults.  There were nearly 45,000 cases of grand larceny, which in New York State, means theft of property valued at $1,000 or more.  Petty larceny?  Try 85,000 cases of it.  So... how much is the watch you're wearing?  That leather overcoat you're planning on taking with you?  Out of 53 million tourists plus 8 million residents, these crime numbers may not sound like much, but hey - if you can follow some easy suggestions to avoid becoming a statistic, why not?

Therefore:  Men, simply keep your wallet in a front pocket at all times.  Ladies, wear an over-the-shoulder purse across your chest.  See?  It's not that hard.

Wherefore:  New Yorkers who display their personal electronics in public do so either with the benefit of sufficient wealth (to replace them after they're stolen), or with an insufficient amount of wisdom.  Or both.  And the same follows for tourists.  If you're going to be stubborn and brandish a smartphone in public, make sure you have an exceptionally firm grip on it.  Forty percent of all robberies in New York City involve smartphones.

Be wise about your surroundings at all times.  However, you'll drive yourself silly if you racially-profile, since native New Yorkers of all colors and cultures will likely walk, dress, talk, and otherwise express themselves in manners that you're not used to.  Remember, New York doesn't exist for you, and neither do New Yorkers.  They're not going to change their attitudes to accommodate you.  The reason you're being tolerated is because of the money you contribute to the city's coffers.  Just make sure the money you're contributing is through your hotel tax (by the way, it's best not to look at your bill when you check out) and not a tourist-target mugging.

If you think you're lost, or need to catch your breath, one trick I learned when I lived there is to stand facing plate glass windows to evaluate the "lay of the land" in reflections on the windows.  By doing so, you'll look more like a shopper than a confused tourist, and you'll reduce your tourist-target quotient.

Don't Be a Typical Tourist

And speaking of confused tourists, if you try my little window trick, please do so while standing at the edge of the sidewalk, not in the middle of it, where New Yorkers are hurriedly walking in their attempt to get someplace fast.  One of the surest ways to become the object of scorn by New Yorkers is to become an impediment to traffic, whether pedestrian, or motorized vehicle, or even bicycle.  You'll see lots of green paint on the pavement now, but that green paint denotes a bike lane, not a stand-and-chat-while-checking-directions-on-my-smartphone zone.

If you want to take a photo, step to the side and away from both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.  Don't spend lots of time taking your photos; with digital cameras, you can take several snaps in a row and hopefully, later on, you can check to see that you got at least one good shot.

If you're part of a group of three or more people, don't walk more than two abreast.

Only the rudest New Yorkers stand right in front of subway car or elevator car doors, waiting for them to open.  When waiting for a subway, bus, or elevator, step to the side when doors open.  Let off-loading passengers disembark first, and then board quickly yourself.  If you're boarding a subway car, make sure you've already determined you've identified the right subway line/train beforehand; don't block doorways as you contemplate making a last-minute change.

My view from a Port Authority helicopter
flying over Park Avenue in the early 1990's.
A lot of those shorter buildings in the center of this photo
have been replaced by glassy high-rises.
Hey - there's a lot to explore and experience in the Big Apple, and the best way to enjoy your visit is to be safe and smart about it.

Remember, too, that even though you're probably mostly interested in Manhattan, that fabled island is only one of New York City's five incredible boroughs. So, if you're an adventurous sort, consider exploring hot spots outside of Manhattan Island's more famous tourist destinations, like the world-renowned Bronx Zoo, the pseudo-Tudor splendor of Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, and surprisingly elegant Brownstone Brooklyn.

And speaking of what to see and do, I would be remiss if I didn't give you a brief listing of where to go - and where to avoid - during your stay in the world's greatest city.  Now, as a rule, I don't really recommend restaurants, since tastes - and budgets! - in dining vary so much, but I do bend that rule with a couple of key exceptions.

So, if you're ready to be an educated tourist, let's go!

Manhattan Attractions I Recommend to Tourist Friends:

Uptown (above 59th Street)
  • Central Park, particularly the Central Park Zoo and Mall (no, it's not a shopping mall)
  • Guggenheim Museum, on the Upper East Side, not so much for the art (see my opinion of MoMA below), but the building itself, where you take the elevator to the top and walk down the ramp; the Guggenheim represents the only work of Frank Lloyd Wright's ever constructed in New York City
  • American Museum of Natural History, on the Upper West Side, even if it is full of evolutionary theory
  • Sylvia's Soul Food Restaurant in Harlem, where the sweet potato pie will make your cardiologist wince
Midtown (between 34th Street and Central Park South, also known as 59th Street)
Downtown (The Battery to Herald Square at 34th Street)
  • Trinity Church, at the head of Wall Street; would that our nation's financiers acknowledge the symbolism; Alexander Hamilton is among the notables buried in its adjacent graveyard
  • St. Paul's Chapel, opened in 1766, the oldest continuously-used public building in Manhattan (there are older buildings throughout the boroughs, however; for example, a Quaker meeting house in Flushing, Queens, was built in 1694)
  • Battery Park City, with its refreshing esplanade along the Hudson River, although it's the most non-New York neighborhood on Manhattan Island
  • Staten Island Ferry, still the best value in New York City with iconic views of the Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
  • Brooklyn Bridge, which you can walk across for stunning skyline and water views
  • Century 21 Department Store, among the last of New York's fabled Jewish-owned discount emporiums, where the low prices will make your head spin
  • Gramercy Park, the city's best-kept secret, even if all we can do is look inside; nearby are the quaint Washington Irving house, the prestigious National Arts Club, and the artsy Players Club.
  • Bowling Green, the first municipal park in the United States, home to the famous Wall Street charging bull, and across the street from the Rockefeller family's former Standard Oil headquarters, the former US headquarters for the venerable Cunard Line, and the historic US Custom House (now housing the National Museum of the American Indian), a Beaux-Arts jewel of a building
Tourist Traps in New York City:
  • 30 Rockefeller Plaza, unless you like being completely surrounded by similarly-duped tourists
  • Empire State Building, unless you like waiting hours in close quarters and still not get to the very top
  • Trump Tower - actually, any Trump building - unless you think gaudy bling is wonderful
  • SoHo, TriBeCa, and the Bowery, unless you like absurd prices and hollow trendiness
  • Chinatown, unless you like filth, noise, and chaos
  • Almost any "famous" restaurant, particularly in the Theater District, like the Carnegie Deli and Planet Hollywood
Manhattan Non-Essentials (places that are interesting but not a must-see):
  • Times Square, where the neon is amazing but Disney has sanitized the New York flavor to nothing (but I know you'll ignore my opinion on this one, since everyone has heard so much about the place)
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, with too much art on display, can be overwhelming; it's best appreciated in strategic doses over the course of repeated visits
  • Museum of Modern Art, seemingly tormented by its drive to keep abstract nihilism relevant (and these days, according to its longtime members, overrun with tourists and noise)
  • Statue of Liberty, which is best appreciated from the decks of the Staten Island Ferry
  • Ellis Island, which although it has a plaque my family dedicated to my grandmother, erased too much gritty history in its desire to sanitize the legal immigration experience
  • Park Avenue and the Upper East Side, since the really big money isn't visible from the street
  • New York Public Library, whose real contribution to the city and academia extends beyond its walls
  • The subway, where tourists mostly get in the way of New Yorkers rushing to get someplace
  • New York Stock Exchange, which while offering a real-time, real-life economics lesson, can be utterly confusing
  • Carnegie Hall, whose legendary charm and resonant acoustics are increasingly rented out to musical groups of dubious distinction
  • Lincoln Center, one of urbanism's best lessons about bad 1960's design, proving that even the world's best orchestra and opera, plus continuous - and costly- architectural tweaking, can only salvage adequacy
  • Cathedral of St. John the Divine (in the winter, or on a cloudy day), when its shadowy interior and bleak, incomplete exterior can recall the foreboding chill of religious cynics
  • Harlem, where nouveau riche blacks have reclaimed beautiful neighborhoods but in the process, have made them as unlivable for middle-income minorities as their crime-ridden shells were a generation ago
  • Fifth Avenue Shopping (from Rockefeller Center and Saks Fifth Avenue to 59th Street), whose brands have mostly become suburbanized and whose urbane patrons now gravitate towards Madison Avenue
  • Strand Books, an amazing Greenwich Village bookstore awash with the pungent smell of really old paper, but so crowded with grunge hipsters it's not a conducive environment for browsing... it's also not a place most registered Republicans would feel welcome
  • Bloomingdales, which although being a Manhattan retailing institution, seems to have lost some of its glamorous mojo
  • Zabar's, probably the world's original gourmet foodie emporium, whose business model has now been replicated so much, you'll likely miss how legendary the store has been to at least two generations of Upper West Siders
  • Washington Square Park, and its iconic archway, in the heart of Greenwich Village and the campus of New York University, boasting an exquisite old-time city neighborhood that's home to some of the City's most bacchanalian college students and artists

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