New York Minute: The Big Apple revisited

Columnist Ursula Maxwell-Lewis returns to New York for the first time in 30 years. The sights, old and new, offer dazzle and depth.

Radio City Music Hall.

Radio City Music Hall.

“You’ll need a cardigan, young lady! It’s cool out there this morning.” Q, the Hoboken W Hotel concierge is keeping a kindly eye on clients from behind a paperweight declaring: WHATEVER. WHEREVER.

Hoboken, former Frank Sinatra hometown, is a $2 and 15-minute subway ride from New York City. Hilary, my daughter, and I chose it for a mother-daughter weekend.

We’re off to join “Immigrant New York”, a Big Onion Walking Tour through the multi-ethnic Lower East Side with Christina, an art history graduate.

The two hour fast-paced crash course on Dutch, Italian, Irish and Jewish city history, civics and architecture is strangely satisfying. It’s a good framework for the balance of our mini-holiday.

The African Burial Ground at 290 Broadway makes a particular impact.

Years ago, excavation crews stumbled upon 419 skeletal remains in an unmarked 17th and 18th century burial ground for free and enslaved Africans. Specifically located outside the city limits of what was then New Amsterdam, decades of development had camouflaged the cemetery with the shameful history.

Thanks to the African-American community and its partners these forgotten people rest in dignity and honour. “Even though we can’t call their names, we know them,” said Dean Bernard L. Richardson during the re-interment ceremony.

Solemnly, silently, we walk, read, and reflect: Burial 5- Infant – Burial 82 – Woman – Burial 363 – Child. Names unknown. The day is grey. Sounds of the great city once enslaving these nearly forgotten souls rumbles around us.  20th anniversary site celebration wreaths bloom nearby. We are moved; glad we came.

Foley Square (a recent Occupy Wall Street site) is next. Surrounded by civic buildings, five bronze medallions set into the sidewalk tell assorted tales. Located over Collect Pond, the original city fresh water source site, this is the notorious Five Points gangland neighbourhood. In 1811 the pond, which had become polluted and suspected of triggering typhus and cholera outbreaks, was drained and filled in.

We explore Little Italy. Hilary, the bag and scarf maven, spies a shop stocking 1,000 bags. Bonus! Endless assortments of $5 scarves, too! Inside, she requests a specific brand name bag.

The cryptic response? “Knock on the mirror at the back.”

Furtively we comply. A door swings open. A good-humored guy adjusting ‘bling’ in a veritable cave of bags nonchalantly waves us in. Forty minutes later, our selections are bagged and noted in pencil for the cashier. Enter more surprised customers.

Day two means test-driving our New York CityPASS. Reputed to save 50 per cent on major attraction tickets, we head for the Empire State Building. Seemingly endless lines advance steadily. An hour later we admire the view from the top while snapping shots of ourselves flanked by the great city.  I reflect on the differences – in the city and myself – from my first trip in 1969. What a delight to share it all again with my daughter.

I drag her off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (another CityPASS coupon). We detour through Central Park admiring children sailing little boats, mimes and music.

The Brooklyn Bridge and Trump Tower are on her lists. Rockefeller Centre is on mine (again).

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a travel writer, photographer and a founding director of the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Follow her on Twitter @YouTravel

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