The Tall, Taller and Tallest in Manhattan

“You can do what you like, sir, but I’ll tell you this. New York is the true capital of America. Every New Yorker knows it, and by God, we always shall.”

That’s not me spouting off biased and borrowed wisdom in my two days of being here. I am not a New Yorker yet. I do not know if I shall ever be one in my heart. The quote is from ‘New York’, a historical novel by British author Edward Rutherford. If you like the kind of bulky tomes that you can hurl at people (who annoy you) and thereby cause serious injury, Rutherford is your man. If you are the kind of person however with a penchant for useless dreaming, and you also possess the patience of a beaver, then you would rather flip open that tome. Channelling your inner Om.

‘New York’ introduced me to historical layers of a world that I had no idea of. The story of Native Americans who lived on Mannahatta, or ‘the land of many hills’, the name given by ancient tribes to Manhattan that is the city’s historical birthplace. The plot starts thickening once the European settlers trickle in.

Now that busy streak from Manhattan’s past, my friend, has infiltrated the present day in which I found myself walking down the busiest of the five boroughs of New York.

On a noon hedged in by skyscrapers, there we were, two people ultimately new to New York’s glitzy glory, craning our necks to take in the full view of an army of towers. Some tipped with golden spires, others with sombre spires and facades sheathed in glass in which you could catch reflections. Just a vision of tall buildings looming above us, no matter what angle we turned our heads at. Oh, it was a giddy feeling alright.

A series of impressive court houses with their massive pillars achieved the intended effect of imbibing us with the requisite amount of awe. A colonial building in a leafy park turned out to be the city hall where the mayor of New York sits and an old church in red bricks shot its hand out to declare its presence right after.

Walking beneath old gaslights into the leafy City Hall Park that was the place for public executions and recreations in old times, we soon found that we were at the portals of the hallowed St. Paul’s Chapel. Standing outside the oldest church building in Manhattan, where George Washington prayed and which survived the 9/11 attacks, we were in a sense soaking in the colonial heritage of the city.

Then there’s the iconic One World Trade Center, rebuilt upon the old World Trade Center complex, catching reflections of the changing skies above us and… wait, what was that strange building, presenting a strange vision of bifurcating ribs?

A thorn in the taxpayer’s line of vision, as a New Yorker might say. Or The Oculus. But I cannot and shall not complain about this building that was conceived of as a giant dove by a Spanish architect. It might end up looking like giant claws apart from ribs but that is a different matter. Some have even likened it to a dinosaur.

You do feel for the architect. Creativity requires imagination and not everyone can give into your vision, however grand and ambitious it might be. It might not be everyone’s favourite building but The Oculus is a paradigm of space and modern design. Through its ribs the skyline of the city was broken up in a linear manner, which was strangely engrossing as the three pink balloons winking down at us from its elevated spot upon the glass beams.

Dear old Oculus is now one of my closest buds in New York. I shall not try and explain that odd fact away given that you know me by now. You see, I enter the city through The Oculus which is the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. It replaced the old PATH station that was destroyed by the 9/11 attacks. Just to put it in perspective, the PATH decoded is Port Authority Trans-Hudson, the rapid transit system that connects places like Newark, Harrison, Hoboken, and Jersey City in New Jersey to New York City, apart from linking up lower and midtown Manhattan as well.

You can well imagine then why I shall rely upon Oculus dear for emotional support and extensive hand holding during all the times that I shall find myself goofing my way around New York, boarding the wrong trains and finding myself in places unknown.

I know this that Oculus shall always be there for me.

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Meet Oculus
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Gaping at The Oculus. Just a very normal reaction.
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Manhattan skyline through the Oculus
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A hip photographer hugs the ground as he waits for the four to kick their feet into the air
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Imagine all the times they must have fallen on their heads. I am odd anyway. A fall or two might take it to unnecessary levels.
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Approaching the pillars of justice around the bend
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Hefty pillars of governance
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The traffic is incessant
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The wheels of justice. They grind on.
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Sizing up the city
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Behemoths 
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Skyscrapers
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City Hall. The office of the mayor of New York.
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City Hall. A profile.
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The goodness of two alliums bobbing their pretty heads inside the City Hall Park
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Gaslights and the city
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City Hall Park
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The old and the new stand shoulder to shoulder
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Brownstone buildings of Manhattan
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One World Trade Center
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Mr. Whippy where art thou?
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St. Paul’s Chapel, cross-sectioned
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Spires. Old and new.

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Entering the picture in silhouette
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‘Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ What would you have made of this, Mr. Chekhov?

The Manhattan Story

His face etched by age, the man in front of Big Wong stood with a faraway look in his face, his hands busy stuffing golden tobacco into the thin stem that stuck out from the side of a wooden bong. That’s not the bongo which would imply an antelope, or on the other end of the spectrum, a drum. But since you can spot our man in the featured photograph with the bong in his hand (behind the potbellied man in the blue tee), you could safely cross out both antelope and drum-shaped possibilities. Instead, you can probably figure out that the bong is a pipe with a filtration device that allows you to smoke anything from tobacco to cannabis. His white apron flecked extensively by red sauce, the man then continued to puff away at the pipe and release curls of smoke as he nodded vigorously to emphasise that he was not partial to getting clicked. Why he was out for a break from his overwrought job of churning out noodles and sauce-laden dishes.

With the clucking of his tongue and the shake of his head, he might as well have mouthed out, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than shooting photographs, so really Horatio, go eat some’.

We did eat a whole lot right after. Steamy bowls of soup with pork dumplings floating in them, a massive plate of noodles topped up with greens and strips of chicken and then the ubiquitous American Chinese dish called General Tso’s Chicken (that often surfaces on pinterest) appeared within minutes of our sitting at the table. All in big portions. We had forgotten the monumental portions of food served up in America. Surrounded by Chinese families going about their bowls with chopsticks and speaking in rapid Chinese, we slurped away.

This was Manhattan. Chinatown, New York. But I could have been easily in an eatery on the streets of Chinatown in Calcutta where the Chinese folks around us would been chattering in Bengali. The common factor was the intensely flavourful food, because that is what makes Chinese such a Friday night comfort food, isn’t it?

Do you put on your PJs after a long day at the end of the week and unwind with delicious Chinese and a frightfully scary movie? I look forward to such evenings when I rustle up Indochinese fare (typically it is about Schezwan dishes concocted with garlic and dried red chillies, moreish Manchurian dishes and chilli dishes which are typically batter fried chicken/fish/ veggies tossed up in spicy sauces). It is a version of Chinese food bequeathed to every Indian by the Han/Hakka community who made their way to Calcutta as far back as the mid 1800s when a businessman called Tong Achi established a sugar mill there.

The migrant Hakka people who belong to the provincial Hakka-speaking provinces of China started working in the sugar mill. In time they turned their skills to work in the tanneries (the stench of which can and will send you into a dead faint) to churn out fashionable and high quality leather goods in British India (working on leather was looked down upon by upper-caste Hindus) and some even operated opium dens. There are faded sepia photographs of rake-thin Chinese men with pipes of opium and punkahs (hand-held bamboo fans) alongside, staring at the lenses with glazed eyes, a sense of detachment from the squalor of their den. I wonder about stories from another era that the Manhattan Chinese have to tell too.

At the same time that some were making their inroads into British India, others chose to make the considerably longer journey to America, lured by stories of the gold rush of the 1840s.

Now New York to Calcutta spells a gigantic leap, but the common thread that runs through them is woven with the warp and weft of stories. Of migration, of immense determination to make it work despite abject circumstances and then these migrants’ renditions of Chinese food that was inevitably tempered by the environment that they found themselves in.

My jaunts have taken me to the Chinatowns in London, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle, Bangkok, Singapore, Port Louis in Mauritius to name some but the way of life of the Manhattan Chinese and the Calcutta Chinese have seeped into the very fabric of their surroundings.

Bringing you back to the streets of Lower Manhattan, the older generation of Chinese turn out to be sticklers for their customs, language and stern expressions. Far removed from the glitziness of the nearby Financial District of New York City, it is a world peopled by old Chinese men and women, bent double with age over walking sticks as they hobble across pavements, stopping once in a while to look askew at passers-by, cordial young bankers sitting inside their chambers and talking about their love for everything modern and coming across as the quintessential New Yorker living in their microcosm, younger store workers with colourful dragon tattoos splayed across their arms and then the antique shop owner with five generations of antiquing in the blood. The streets of Lower Manhattan are entrancing.

This was how we were introduced to the well-known and oft talked about grand American dream – that if you put in hard work why you shall reap the rewards –  all tucked in comfortably within the streets of Chinatown.

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The Georgian-style Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration does stand out in its very obviously Chinese surroundings.
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Sunday masses at the church are held in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

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Chinatown Starbucks
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Heritage and modernity join hands in Starbucks, Chinatown.
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 Colours of Chinatown in Lower Manhattan
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The oldest store in Chinatown, Manhattan, is this antique store called Wing On Wo & Co. Generations of Chinese have been selling porcelain here since the 1920s.
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Those fire escapes fascinated me. Here you see them on Mott Street, which is the nerve centre of Chinatown.
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A Cantonese businessman was the first to arrive in Lower Manhattan and start the process of slowly and surely changing the nature of these streets.
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At Big Wong, we let go. Pork dumplings.
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Noodles laden with pak choi and chicken
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General Tso’s Chicken. A piquant affair.
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Fire escapes and dimsum palaces
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Chinatown leads you into Little Italy. A neighbourhood where once immigrants from Naples and Sicily arrived in the 1800s.
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I was taken in by those fire escapes as you can see.
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Italy nostalgia. 
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A typical NYC sight
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Red chequered table cloths, cannoli, espresso, pizzas, pastas…a feast awaits you in Little Italy. I cannot wait to get back and tuck into some Italian fare.
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We might have started with Chinatown but I leave you here with Little Italy, which goes to show that here is a city that belongs to everybody, and at first glance, seems to be made up of a million dreams and desires.