Wednesday, 6 October 2010

No pity in the naked city

Here's a news flash for the uninitiated - October in New York can be chilly. Bring a jacket, hell, bring two.

Our second day in the city saw us heading downtown (where the lights are bright) to visit SoHo, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown and Bleeker Street - home to the hippy movement. Looking up at the architecture, you're struck by how many fire escapes there are. Ladders, walkways and drop down ramps are stuck on the side of every building, as though the entire city is under constant threat of spontaneous combustion.

Under heavy skies and a constant persistent drizzle, we made our way to Christopher Street and and made a pilgrimage to the Stonewall Pub - birthplace of the modern gay rights movement. It all kicked off in 1969, on the night of Judy Garland's funeral, when the gays decided that their favourite night-spot had endured one-too-many police raids. The bar's regulars decided that they were only going to kneel in subjugation when they felt like it, and thus was born the Stonewall riots. The moral of the story here - never spill a drag queen's drink.

With Beth resigned to a convalescent home for the terminally knackered, we were on our own yesterday, so tripped off to Battery Park to pick up our tickets for the Statue ferry tour. For the cruise across the harour we sat up top, on metal benches so uncomfortable that the Marquis De Sade would have considered them inhumane. The sky was also rolling with grey cloud, giving the entire panorama a rather depressing palour.

We followed the prerecorded instructions about how to disembark the ferry, which seem to be voiced by Reverend Lovejoy, and called in at the visitor centre to pick up our audio tour mp3 players. It's a long time since I took an audio tour, but the experience was not dissimilar to the training level at the start of 'Tomb Raider' - "Walk to the bottom of the steps, take a left and then look at the flagpole." I wouldn't have been too surprised if the voiceover had instructed me to vault over the nearest wall and practice my somersaults.

Although the audio tour felt a little too prescriptive at times (and could have benefitted from a 'yeah, I get it, move on' button) it was pretty interesting. For instance, we learned that Bartholdi, who conceived and designed the Statue of Liberty, was actually just recycling old ideas he'd had for a lighthouse in Egypt, inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes. And there was me thinking that Michael Mann was the first person to repurpose ideas from a lesser work to great critical acclaim.

The voiceover also told us about the challenge of creating a suitable pedestal on which the statue could be displayed. The winning design by Richard Morris Hunt managed to be classic and awe-inspiring, without detracting from the giant green woman that would stand on top of it. As the audio tour explained "It was particularly hard for an architect to design something that would never be noticed". Perhaps Hunt should have tried his hand at copywriting in an agency - producing output so inconsequential, it disappears from your brain before you've even finished reading it.

While the French were busy raising money to pay for the statue, which was their gift to the American people (mix-tapes and friendship bracelets don't have the same impact), the US was facing a similar challenge. Legendary publisher Pulitzer used his newspaper 'The World' to encourage members of the public to contribute whatever they could to the Pedestal Fund, in exchange for a mention in the paper. Suddenly, Peter Jackson's idea of selling credits in the extended editions of Lord of the Rings does't seem like quite such an odd concept.

There's a great display of Liberty memorabilia in the museum, including one startling piece of WW2 propaganda - "That liberty shall not perish from the earth - buy liberty bonds." The image on the poster depicted a decapitated statue. All that was missing was the giant squid/lobster beast from Cloverfield in the background.

Having spent long enough staring up liberty's skirt to qualify as a gynaecological engineer, we took the ferry over to Ellis Island - which during a 40 year period managed to process over 12 million immigrants. Interestingly, the audio tour here directed us to the first floor 'registry room', pointing out that the steps themselves were part of the screening process for would-be immigrants. Doctors would stand at the baloney to observe whether anyone had difficulty handling the stairs. Of course, the helpful audio guide also pointed out that any burger-munchers who couldn't handle the stairs today could always take the elevator.

Our final destination yesterday was Ground Zero, and the 9/11 memorial museum. Although the content was compelling and emotional, there's something strangely distancing about seeing an event you observed in real time, now represented by dust-covered relics in temperature-controlled cases. Only nine years have passed since the towers fell, but the museum concept makes it feel more like a hundred. Perhaps that's what the people of New York need in order for their wounds to heal.

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