Over the President’s Day weekend, a friend of mine challenged me to put together a day tour of New York that was tranquil, unexpected and very much in keeping with the history and identity of the city. I came up with this: a somewhat desolate though eye-opening tour of New York’s once glorious maritime past.
New York used to be one of the greatest sea ports in the world, together with its sister cities London and Liverpool, across the Atlantic. When one thinks of New York in the 1920s, large cruise-ships filled with the rich and famous and their starry-eyed retinue come to mind. Since the advent of air travel, and manufacturing’s flight from the city in the 1970s and ’80s, New York’s relevance as a port has dwindled and it has ceased to exist as a maritime city per se.
Relics of this once glorious maritime past are concentrated in Lower Manhattan, the heart of the once-bustling port, as well as that of colonial New York. Wandering around the seemingly random streets that do not adhere to the rigid grid applied to the rest of Manhattan, one feels keenly the palpable influence of the Dutch and English (New York’s two seafaring colonial masters) everywhere. My tour begins at the southern tip of Lower Manhattan and ends just past its northern boundary, in East Village.
10:30 a.m. Take the Staten Island Ferry from South Ferry Terminal
The Staten Island Ferry from South Ferry Terminal is one of the best-secrets in New York. Ferrying more than 10,000 people a day between Manhattan and the borough of Staten Island, the ferry inches by (well almost) the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and affords a stupendous view of Manhattan’s skyline. Best of all, it’s absolutely FREE.
A note of caution though: for those of you who remember the pre-9/11 skyline, the absence of the Twin Towers still renders the view eerie and unrecognisable. The hair on my arms were standing on end.
For Ferry schedules, see: http://www.siferry.com
11:00 a.m. Explore the National Lighthouse Museum site, and take a slow stroll along Staten Island’s northern coastline
Most of the tourists on the Ferry tend to get off the ferry, and clamber back on again for the return trip. But I suggest a slow stroll along the northern coastline of Staten Island, for stunning views of the Manhattan and Jersey skyline, interposed with massive cargo ships and tankers. Start at the derelict National Lighthouse Museum site just to the East of the Ferry Terminal and work your way West.
The National Lighthouse Museum site was once the US Lighthouse Service Depot, the national centre of operations for US Lighthouse Services, when New York was a bustling port in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Abandoned in the 1960s, it fell into disuse and is in an alarming state of disrepair currently, despite it having been added to the National Register of Historic Places. For more than a decade, the Board of the National Lighthouse Museum has been trying to raise sufficient funds to refurbish and transform it into a museum. But nothing seems to be happening just yet.
This area around the site is also fascinating because of a completely abandoned luxury condominium complex that sits right beside it, and a landscaped boardwalk that appears to have been abandoned in mid-construction due to a lack of funding. It’s all a little bit creepy, desolate and unforgettable.
For more info, see: http://www.lighthousemuseum.org
12:00 noon Take the Staten Island Ferry back to Manhattan
View along the Western Boardwalk towards a beautiful lighthouse in the distance
1:00 p.m. Take the Building Tour of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, now the Smithsonian Museum for the American Indian
Back in the days of New York’s maritime glory, the Custom House was one of the most important buildings in all of America. Then, 70% of the nation’s revenues came from custom duties on imported goods, and almost all of these revenues were collected here, at the Customs House, from goods that passed through the port of New York. The building is one of the most opulent and over-the-top specimens of early 19th century architecture in New York, designed to show the world just how wealthy and magnificent a trading nation America was. These days, it houses a branch of the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum for the American Indian, alongside (rather tragically) the Federal Bankruptcy Courts.
For a glimpse into the building’s glorious past and its idiosyncratic architecture, as well as a peek into some of the stunning rooms in the building that are off-limits to general visitors, I recommend the Building Tour, which only takes place once a week on Fridays at 1 p.m. and lasts around 45 minutes. The guide was passionate, energetic and an awesome story-teller. Museum entry, and the tour are absolutely FREE.
For more visitor info, see: http://www.nmai.si.edu/subpage.cfm?subpage=visitor
2:00 p.m. Have a lingering lunch at Smorgas Chef, on historic Stone Street
Stone Street is one of the oldest streets in Manhattan. Left pretty much intact and populated with a mix of British-style taverns, it looks positively Dickensian. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a good (read: NOT touristy) Dutch or English restaurant in New York, in which one can relive New York’s brief stint as a colonial city.
However, there is an amazing Scandinavian restaurant in the area, which is close enough I suppose. The restaurant is cosy, the service is authentically Scandinavian (go figure), and the food is delicious. Try the house specialty Smorgas Bord, and make a reservation as this place is popular with lunch-time crowds from nearby Wall Street.
Make reservations at: http://www.smorgas.com/index_wallstreet.htm
3:00 p.m. Explore the South Street Seaport Museum and waterfront
South Street Seaport, a mere 10 minutes away, is another major heritage site from New York’s maritime past, featuring the largest concentration of restored 19th century mercantile and commercial buildings. The area was the site of the original Port of New York City, but is now a rather Disneylandish cluster of malls and tourist attractions, including a fleet of historic 19th century ships. Up until 2005, the area was also home to the famous Fulton Street Fish Market.
The South Street Seaport Museum has been under-going renovation and recently re-opened 16 galleries. It is worth a visit for a glimpse into life like it was when the area was still an operating port. Two displays in particular are fascinating – a 25 minute video narrative of the history of the city from its days as a Dutch colonial outpost (the excellent Timescapes); and a re-imagining of the island of Manhattan in 1609, when it was a tract of pristine forest yet to be discovered by the Dutch. Entry to the museum is $5, and includes entry to the Museum of the City within 7 days. [Quick tip: Entry to the Museum of the city is $10, so its worth checking out this smaller cousin first.]
After the museum, be sure to stroll along the waterfront to view the historic ships still anchored there, and to grab a coffee at one of the cafes or bars in the area.
For more visitor info, see: http://www.southstreetseaportmuseum.org
7:00 p.m. Have drinks and dinner at the Mermaid Inn, East 6th St & 2nd Ave, East Village
Thus far, most of the stops on this tour have been within 10 minutes walking distance, but this next stop requires a subway trip to Astor Place and a quick walk into the heart of the East Village. Reserve a table in advance as the place gets very crowded, but get there early (5 – 7 pm) for $1 oysters and excellent draft beers and wines at the bar. Gradually transition to a scrumptious seafood dinner in a gloriously nautical and uber-gezellig atmosphere.
Lush that I am, I got exceedingly drunk long before dinner-time and so forgot to take photographs of the venue. Take a look at the gallery on the Mermaid Inn website for a sense of how the place looks and feels like. Those photos capture the ambience very accurately.
9:00 p.m. Hop over to the nearby Fish Bar on East 5th St & 2nd Ave for a nightcap
Finally, if you’re still itching for a drink after dinner, or just want to get wasted, hop across the street for an early nightcap in the tiny, divey and also very nautical Fish Bar. The atmosphere is casual, friendly, wise-cracking. The place gets very crowded and noisy at night, but hey, you’re probably drunk already anyway so who the hell cares! Drink up and get home safe.
And check them out on Yelp: http://www.yelp.com/biz/fish-bar-new-york.