Exploring New York 31 years on

Strand Book Store, New York: 18 miles of books
Strand Book Store, New York: 18 miles of books

By Zeenat Hisam

guest-contributor29 July 2016: Today is my first day of exploring New York. It rained last night. And the morning is bright, the air crispy, the weather pleasant. The heat has subsided. Manhattan is 30-minute subway train ride away from the place in Brooklyn we are staying in. Well, not a bad bargain for a low-budget traveller.

All the way from Stony Brook to New York I saw America shining and prospering: well-maintained infrastructure looking almost new; a lot of construction/repair work in progress; highways filled with big, gleaming cars. In New York the subway stations and the carriages all looked new. So far I have not detected anything that looked dilapidated, worn out or shabby.

But times have definitely changed. All the carriages in the subway train have a prominent announcement glued on the glass: ‘New Yorkers keep New York safe’ and ‘If you see something say something’. It is explained further ‘I noticed some cars which should not be there so I called.’ Well, at least they are trying to use a neutral language when calling your attentionto the threat of terrorism and Muslims!

The Cloisters: Upper Manhattan part of metropolitan museum, New York
The Cloisters: Upper Manhattan part of metropolitan museum, New York

But I must give the credit where it is due: I did not come across any look, any gesture, any word from any one that would have made me feel I am a butt of racism or Islamophobia. New Yorkers in general I find friendly and helpful: they still held doors for me and Nudrat and helped us with the luggage.

What stays the same in the US, I feel, is the status of the blacks: you see black people as usher boys, janitors, cleaners, salesmen. More black homeless people sitting in the parks, more black shabbily dressed, sad looking women.

The trend to knock off as much clothing as you can to beat the heat has taken an upper hand. I may be wrong but I don’t remember seeing so many women and men in the 1980s with such plunging necklines, strapless dresses, bare legs, bare backs as I see this time.

Unlike the 1980s when almost all people in the subway read newspapers or a book, now everyone plays with smart phones, read on tablets or listen to music. In the 1980s it was so easy to figure out who are the tourists because they had city maps or Lonely Planets. Now it is their cell phones which guide them.

Lower Manhattan

Union Square Park: I remember I fell in love with New York the first time I saw it in the summer of 1982. The city pulsates with life. Wide sidewalks full of pedestrians: in between blocks of buildings gardens with big shady trees, neat benches, fountains. A place where no one bothers you, no one stares at you. Everybody is lost in her own world. It strips you off your self-consciousness, that straitjacket feeling that stifles you in the cities of Pakistan. It is nice to stroll in the Union Square Park and watch the squirrels running around and pigeons and sparrows pecking on seeds. You also notice several homeless people, a couple of deranged old men.

Union Square Park, New York
Union Square Park, New York

Strand Book store: boasts of 18 miles of books. It is full of people any time of the day. I bought just one book about animals for my niece Amna.

Regal Cinemas: I watched and enjoyed Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne from 2 to 4 pm, while Nudrat went with her friend Hania to help her buy stuff for a year long stay in Columbia University residence. It is a wonderful feeling to let the other person take the lead. On this trip Nudrat is the leader: she does the booking online, orders food, pays the bill, gets the location of places through her smart phone.

Washington Square Park: It is near New York University. The NYU’s many buildings and banners made me remember that Zia Bhai was here in the late 1960s. New high rise apartments have come up but these blend in with the old buildings. I wonder about the time Bhai had spent in the Park. May be very little as he must have been too busy studying.

30 July

We went to the Union Square as we needed to change the cable we had bought yesterday from the Best Buy for my ipad.  Then we had coffee at Chocolate by the Bald Man (funny name) and Nudrat ordered a chocolate pizza! This busy café has a thousand recipes that begin and end with chocolate!

Angelika Film Centre and Café: Located in New York City’s Soho district, the Angelika is famous for screening art films and foreign films. It has six small theatres and is recognized as an art house. We saw Woody Allen’s Café Society. What a wonderful film! A must watch. We then strolled down the Soho, visited a bookshop.

The Museum of Modern Art: It started raining so we thought we could give MoMA a try. But at 3:30 pm it had a very long queue for tickets so we just browsed its large gift shop. I bought a repro of Andy Warhol minimalistic painting (11 hearts in red and a pigeon in blue with words I love you so) as a gift to Nudrat for her birthday which falls on 9 August. We planned to visit MoMA again during a week day and in early hours.

Fifth Avenue and the Central Park: We took a stroll down the Fifth Avenue which has the trendiest and the most expensive brands’ houses. At Trump Tower we noticed a woman in scarf booing, getting herself photographed with her thumbs down. It kept raining but we entered the Central Park. It is really beautiful with amazingly sturdy, thick and branched out trees and shrubs and looks magical in the midst of skyscrapers. We sat near the entrance at a bench and then went to eat. We planned to visit it again at leisure.

Shahi Biryani and Grill: it is a Pakistani restaurant near Columbia University. The food is good. On TV, the Dunya channel was running Pakistan time 3:30 am news, dull and depressing.

31 July

Battery Park and the Ferry Station: Battery Park is a 25-acre public park located at the southern tip of Manhattan island. At the left is the ferry station which runs gratis every 30 minutes from New York city to the Staten Island where Raffat, my university days friend lives. Battery Park has an impressive monument—eight tall granite slabs with thousands of names etched of those American Navy personnel who died in the western coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean during the Second World War (1941-1945). At the centre is a huge bronze eagle perched on a granite pedestal. Perhaps this is an emblem of the US navy.

We three—me, Nudrat and her friend Haniya—took the ferry. It was clouded, windy and misty. The ferry was full mostly of tourists, I think. The ferry and the station all looked well maintained, almost new. In my memories of 1985, the last time I visited New York, the infrastructure, including the ferry, was a bit shabby. Things are much cleaner now, almost gleaming with prosperity.

Staten Island: The train ride from the Ferry Station to Eltingville was nice. Staten Island is a sort of qasbah, in our parlance. It does not have more than 2-storey high residential apartments and it is very green, with a lot of forest space and parks. Raffat came to pick us up from the railway station. Her house is nice and cozy. Her husband looked old and fragile. He migrated to the US as a pharmacist in the early 1970s. Now he is retired due to his health issues. Raffat is Assistant Director Hospitals, Adult Day Health Services at the Sea View Hospital, Rehabilitation Centre and Home. She also practices as a psychotherapist at a clinic once a week. She enjoys her work and is content with her life. Her son and daughter, both married, live in different states.

Sea View Hospital: After lunch Raffat took us to show around her work place and Staten Island. Sea View was a tuberculosis sanatorium built between 1905 and 1938. Earlier, in 1803, this was Richmond Country Poor Farm where lived a rural community. It comprises 37 buildings. Raffat told us that it shut down (in 1961) when the cure for tuberculosis was discovered and all the patients got well and went home. After several years, in the 1980s, the site was turned into an old people hospital, rehab and nursing home.

Historic Richmond City: Raffat drove us around this historic city which comprises four sites and 30 old structures which are preserved in their original shape. These are small cottages, farm houses and a few rural mansions that you spot in old Hollywood black and white movies. It is said these go back to 1600s! It has now been turned into a tourist spot. But we didn’t come across tourists. The area is hilly, very scenic, reminding me of the gulliyaat up in the north of our country. Aside historic city, Richmond has opulent houses of rich people, including some Pakistan doctors, Raffat tells us. Very peaceful area.

Cold Stone Creamery: Raffat took us at this place for ice cream. This is famous home-made ice-cream which is mixed with toppings and battered on a cold stone then lapped in to a scoop and served. The small size is so large that Nudrat and Haniya leave the servings!

Silver Lake Park: It is the biggest park in the Staten Island surrounding a shimmering lake, a fresh spring-water body in earlier times. It was in 1900 that the people of Staten Island called for establishing a park for recreation! Very scenic with rolling hills, old trees, shrubberies, rabbits and squirrels. I and Raffat sat on a bench and chatted for an hour while Nudrat and Haniya went down to the lake.

1 August:

The Cloisters: a museum in upper Manhattan by the Hudson River is indeed very unique and a marvel in collection (or thievery?) as it has put together European medieval architecture, sculpture and art, not lock, stock and barrel but in part and parcel, assimilating and integrating every artifact, column, wall, rampart, door, window, arch mostly from medieval France and Italy in such a way that it has created a wonderful ambience of monasteries and abbeys of that period. It comprises four installed cloisters surrounded by chapels and rooms and gardens that remind me of Spain and Muslim architecture. It is now a part of the Metropolitan Museum. It does not have as many tourists as the city museums have.

Fort Tryon Park: The Cloisters are set in the Fort Tryon Park located at a ridge at upper Manhattan with winding pathways, meadows and gardens. It is also an old park built by wealthy New Yorkers, mainly Rockefeller.

Central Park, Bethesda Fountain and Terrace: This Park is also very old, built in 1857! Very big, spread over 843 acres, it is really amazing. But if you dig deep into history, you discover that this land was forcefully acquired through eviction of 1600 freed blacks and Irish people who had settled in shanty towns!

It is impossible to see the entire park. The most visited site is the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain. I and Nudrat met at this point Roomana and her daughter Ayesha who are on vacation in NYC for a few days. We met after 11 years. It was good to see Roomana who is now working in Paris these days. We chatted for an hour.

America: No wonder the world loves American. No wonder the world hates America. This is 2016 and America seems so prosperous, so perfect. No wonder America rules the world. But Americans are the same human beings as others so why can’t others achieve what America has achieved?

Iqbal: I am often thinking of Iqbal’s poetry and thoughts and the fact that he was the one who first reflected on the achievements of the west and asked why the east has been left behind. He was the one who told us not to get unduly impressed by the gleam and glitter, the face and façade.  Everything seems to be so smooth on the surface, in sync and in peace. New Yorkers, by and large, seem content, often smiling. But is not beauty skin deep? I wish I would have kept Iqbal’s pocket kulliyaat with me!

2 August

Greenwich Village: Situated at the lower west side of Manhattan, this area is famous as the counterculture movements in the 1960s originated from this neighbourhood: hippies, bohemians, etc, who rejected materialism and questioned the prevalent narratives. It is the most expensive residential area. Reminiscent of European cities, its streets have small shops and cafes and tucked in between are small parks with benches occupied by old people.

From a small shop Artful Posters at the Bleecker Street we bought a big Andy Warhol poster of two blue flowers. The slender, middle-aged Italian looking man with a sunburnt face tells me he is running the shop for the last forty years. He seems to be one of those people who seem to love their merchandise and take pride in what they do. Like the bookseller portrayed by Mushtaq Yusufi!. The shop has a very good collection of repros and posters in sizes big and small. When I asked him if he has Andy Warhol he showed me a number of posters. Andy Warhol was an American artist who is famous for doing celebrities’ graphic portraits. Do you remember the famous Marlyn Monroe poster? I did not know the artist painted flowers and butterflies too. I like his use of bright colours and few lines.

Nudrat also bought a small poster of Andy Warhol:  flower in red for her room in Stony Brook. We then sat in a park called Washington Churchill square. Sparrows and pigeons hopped at  our feet. We strolled down the Bleecker Street past many expensive boutiques and trendy brand shops, had coffee at the Amy’s Bread, a quaint, small coffee n bread shop. Browsed at a couple of bookstores and then rested at a small park marked by a statue called the Family, nearby the Bleecker Playground full of children.

High Line: or High Line Park is a green aerial walkway build on a disused section of elevated train track. I wonder at the American ingenuity and their desire to make the cities accessible and friendly to all, irrespective of class. The construction on the High Line began in 2006 and it opened in phases. Its third and final phase was opened in 2014. High Line is 2.3 km long and full of trees, plants and flowers amidst railway track, with benches and at broader points artists are selling their works.

Central Park: We then headed to the Central Park where we met Nudrat’s friend Haniya. I had always thought European cities have wonderful parks. During my previous visits, which were brief (1982, 1985) I only passed through the Central Park. This time I am a witness to Americans’ love for nature. There are big parks in each borough. And when you explore these parks, you notice that citizens of New York have contributed hugely to the establishment and maintenance of these parks. These people have been honoured with their names etched on brass plates fixed either on the walls, the floor or the benches. Who can beat American philanthropy and their desire to benefit a larger number of people?

I am now re-thinking my earlier impressions. Nudrat also told me gently that ‘it is not just gleam and glitter’. There is a lot of substance behind it. You are right, Zia Bhai, it is not that black and white.

When I go out of Pakistan, one thing which I yearn to do, is to lie down on the grass in a park and look up at the trees and the skies. This simple act I cannot do in my country. So, in the Central Park, I lay on the grass and listen to qawwalis and ghazals for an hour, savouring the play of sunlight on the leaves of majestic trees. Later, we three went for rowing which Nudrat enjoyed! Way back we ate in a Mexican joint near our place in Brooklyn. For the first time I tasted enchilada and burrito (rice and beans wrapped in a chappati). It was delicious!

3 August

Brooklyn: We are staying in Brooklyn, an AirBnB place run by a young beautiful and slender woman Maya who lives nearby with her mother and twin toddlers. We booked this place online as we found it affordable and run by a woman. It has two rooms and a kitchen. In the other room two young Chinese girls are staying. So it feels good, being among women. I find it a nice area, with brownstone 2-storey residential buildings. Adjacent to this block is the Greenest Block in Brooklyn. This announcement is posted through bills nailed to the trees. The residents have put up potted plants on the window sills and on pavements. We took a few pictures.

Brooklyn is one of the five boroughs of New York, populated by racially mixed community. But each community is concentrated in different blocks. There are enclaves of blacks, Jews, Italians. Brooklyn has many remarkable places. Since 2000, this borough is thriving in entrepreneurship and is becoming a hip area. Back at home I have read an article in NY Times about how artists in Brooklyn are holding shows in their apartments. This is a new trend among emerging, unknown artists to defy the monopoly of art dealers. These shows are announced via social media. I had noted down addresses of four such art galleries and thought we would visit these. But there is so much to see and do in New York that I forgot about those art galleries!

New York Transit Museum

I was very keen to see this museum as its ads I found in many places in Brooklyn because what I find most fascinating about New York is its underground subway system. This time, after 31 years, I find the subway much improved and upgraded: most of the stations are spic and span, almost shining, with new wooden benches which look antique. The carriages are also gleaming. There is a change in the advertisements inside the carriages, a change for a better. In the 1980s all the ads were about consumer items—food, cosmetics, etc. Now all the ads, though commercial are about services—education, social security—and tips to save electricity, etc. Employers expect a lot from you. Expect a lot from them is an ad from Justworks.com, an enterprise that offer companies and individuals services related to HR, social security and compliance. There are ads about community colleges and skill building. Back at home I had also read an article how New York city has launched a campaign to popularize vocational education.

The museum is located in a real 1935 subway station in downtown Brooklyn. Established in 1976, this subway station was earlier used for training the workers, I was told when I asked a museum officer. Sprawled over one full city block, it houses subway carriages and elevated cars dating back from 1907 on both sides of the platform. There are photographic installations with detailed information and the stories how this engineering feat was accomplished. The subway system was built during 1900 to 1925 and its first phase was opened to public in 1904. It was built by 50,000 workers who toiled in harsh conditions. When you read all these installations you realize how much sweat and blood had gone in the making of New York a commuter-friendly city.

We spotted two groups of children guided by their teachers, sitting inside carriages, listening and asking questions! This country inculcates a sense of pride in its history and achievements from an early age through these kinds of exposure trips. I feel envious…

Brooklyn Civic Centre

It is the Brooklyn downtown area, commercial and services hub, with office and residential buildings. It has broad side walks, lined by cafes and shops, interspersed with small parks. It is not as crowded as downtown Manhattan area. Brooklyn was once an independent city and its civic centre,  sadar, had a number of historical buildings—court, city hall, municipal building. But many buildings have been replaced. What I learned and like most about Brooklyn is the fact that many prominent abolitionists lived here when New York was indifferent to slavery. Many Brooklyn churches had agitated against legalized slavery in the 1850s and 1860s.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park

Prospect Park is the second biggest park in New York after Central Park. This park was opened in 1867.When I read about the history of these parks on internet, I marvel at Americans! Since the very beginning they designed and included open green spaces in the city planning and the rich people contributed a lot.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden was founded adjacent to the Prospect Park in 1910. It has many sections. We saw the Shakespeare Garden, a tribute to the Shakespeare’s love for nature and his mention of many plants, flowers and shrubs in his poetry. The Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden was very beautiful. The pig pond has fish and turtles and its waters are green. One can spend a peaceful time gazing at the waters. We rested at the Cherry Walk Esplanade, a wide meadow lined by cherry trees. We also visited the conservatory and its three pavilions housing desert, tropical and warm temperate flora. The gift shop had such wonderful and artistic objects but so expensive. Till today I have not done any shopping except that book about animals for Amna. I find shopping worthless: there is so much to see, observe and reflect. Shopping is a waste of time. I plan to shop for gifts online and/or in Stony Brook after we return from Patricia’s place and from Grand Canyon, that is after 25 August.

Pearl Indian Food

We ate at this restaurant run by a Bangladeshi. It just feels nice to eat at a Muslim place. The roti and aalo were delicious.