Good old New York

The island of Manhattan is the heart of New York.  And like the human heart, it never sleeps.  Now the world’s most expensive real estate by far, 20 km long and about 3 km wide, it was purchased in 1626 by the Dutch West India Company from the native Lenape Indians for 60 guilders (about $1,000 at present rate)!

 (Published in Daily Times, 18 July 2012)

 New York is nothing if not chaotic and crowded, noisy and busy.  And yet it captivates the visitor and keeps its inhabitants charmed.  One might say that New York is Lahore and Karachi combined, or Delhi and Mumbai put together, for it has history and character, on the one hand, and enterprise and dynamism on the other.  Like Karachi and Mumbai, New York makes it possible for all newcomers to make a living and rewards initiative and hard work.  And New Yorkers have the same pride in their city as the people of Lahore and Delhi have in theirs.

The island of Manhattan is the heart of New York.  And like the human heart, it never sleeps.  Now the world’s most expensive real estate by far, 20 km long and about 3 km wide, it was purchased in 1626 by the Dutch West India Company from the native Lenape Indians for 60 guilders (about $1,000 at present rate)!  Named New Amsterdam by the Dutch, it was captured from them by the British in 1664 and renamed New York.  Retaken by the Dutch in 1673 with the help of a fleet of 21 ships, New York was finally ceded to Great Britain within a year through the Treaty of Westminster that ended the Third Anglo-Dutch War.  Just over a hundred years later, the British lost it to the American colonists.

Ellis Island in the harbor south of Manhattan became the gateway to millions of immigrants between 1892 and 1954.  The famous Statue of Liberty as well as an Immigration Museum are located here. It is this south side of Manhattan that offers the most magnificent view of New York.  Soon, the physical void left by the destruction of the elegant Twin Towers will be filled with something perhaps more magnificent, if a little poignant. But it will certainly take much longer to fill the gaping wound in the heart of this city. 

The hour-long return trip from lower Manhattan wharf on the Staten Island ferry offers a majestic view of the New York skyline and a close look at the Statue of liberty at an unbeatable price. Funded by the City of New York, it is completely free for tourists and commuters alike.

That Manhattan is a jungle of concrete, steel and glass is for all to see. But hidden beneath its surface, under the towering skyscrapers that prevent sunlight from reaching the streets, is a huge network of tunnels and caverns sheltering 421 stations and 337 km of routes of the New York subway system.  All but two stations stay open 24 hours.  Pressed by water from all sides, and with skyscrapers as densely packed as toothpicks bearing down on them from above, the tunnels that allow the trains to criss-cross below day and night have to be an engineering marvel that few people appreciate as they travel the now ageing subway system. 

American efficiency, which even the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin praised before a Communist Party conference as far back as in 1924, is evident even in the “naming” of streets and stations.  In fact, most streets in Manhattan are not named but numbered.  Locating streets by name, when there are so many of them, would have been a nightmare.  So, all streets are numbered, ascending or descending in numerical order.  Subway stations, accordingly, are conveniently known by the number of the street above.

Central Park in upper Manhattan, which first opened in 1857 and is spread over 843 acres of land, four kilometres long and just under one kilometre wide, has to be among the world’s most expensive real estates.  In Pakistan, it would have long ago have been parcelled out among politicians, generals and bureaucrats, or sold to developers for a hefty cut.

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963, Central Park receives approximately thirty-five million visitors annually and is the most visited urban park in the US.  In the upper west side of Manhattan is situated the American Museum of Natural History, one of the largest and best in the world. Founded in 1869, its collections contain over 32 million specimens and it employs a scientific staff of more than 200.  Although there is a “suggested” admission fee of $19, a nominal payment of two dollars is enough to gain entry.  A full list of the museums and art centres in New York would take up a couple of pages.  Suffice to mention here two greats, besides the American Museum of Natural History: Guggenheim Museum and the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts; and three “bizarre” ones: Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Tattoo Museum and Museum of Sex.

The city of New York, comprised of Manhattan, Bronx, Kings, Queens and Staten Island, with a total population of under nine million, has an estimated GDP of over $1.2 trillion, nearly four times that of Pakistan at the official exchange rate.  The New York Public Library, second only to the Library of Congress, has 53 million items, 87 branches and an annual budget of nearly $250 million.

New York is the world in microcosm.  I doubt there is any ethnicity, race, religion or cult that is not represented here.  Compared to my visit there about 20 years ago, the most striking difference was the large number of Bangladeshis selling from small shops, shopfronts and kiosks in Manhattan.  The vast majority of them owe their arrival to the Diversity Visa lottery which randomly selected a certain number of applicants from “under-represented” nationalities to get the much-coveted green cards.  Those who arrived in the first wave in the 1990s, having become citizens, are now sponsoring their parents and siblings.

It is apt to recall that when the US announced the Diversity Visa Lottery, many in Pakistan and Bangladesh were very sceptical, thinking this was a plot to identify the interested immigrants and blacklist them forever from entering the country.  However, the US was as good as its word, doing exactly what it said it would do.  Thousands of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and others in New York and elsewhere in the US are living proof of this.

For us, however, it was time to catch a plane back home from JFK Airport.  This concluded a memorable transcontinental road trip, taking in its lap nearly the length and breadth of the world’s second and third largest countries.  Flying out of New York, we had come full circle, for it was here that our road trip of over 17,000 km had commenced about six weeks earlier.  A few who had wondered whether my wife would still be with me at the end of such a long and hectic road trip have been proven wrong! 

By Razi Azmi

Part 13 of series on driving tour of USA-Canada (concluded)


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2 Responses to Good old New York

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Brilliant is the word that comes to mind. Even if I do not ever get a chance to visit New York I’ll feel I have seen it because the way Razi Sahib has described it one has taken a trip.
    Thank you for taking us along on this wonderful trip.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    Very interesting.

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