In the late seventies I lived and worked in New York. My job took me all around the United States and Canada. So I like to go back occasionally; the last time being a couple of years ago with my soon to be wife Wendy. She had never been to New York so I worked up an itinerary to show her the highlights in just a few days. We also decided to drive to Washington DC and Boston.
When we lived in New York my first wife and I had an apartment in a York Avenue high rise, near the East River.
Apartment 27D 1365 York Avenue - new in 1977 under repair in 2010 for concrete cancer
My eldest daughter was born in New York Hospital just across the way. Over the years York Avenue hasn't changed much, except that New York Hospital no longer operates as a general hospital; it has become a medical research institution. But elsewhere New York’s changed a great deal since the late 1970s. The most dramatic changes are downtown, around Soho and on the West Side. An area that used to be mainly artists’ lofts and old garment factories has transmogrified into a major retail area with lots of trendy boutiques. It seems the whole West Side, up into the hundreds, has been gentrified.
Because of my familiarity with the area we rented a serviced apartment in east 58th street. This is still a good choice as it is an easy walking distance to Fifth Avenue, Central Park, the Museum Of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim. We were there at the end of March but there was still snow piled at the end of Central Park the day we arrived. Our first night we walked across town, past Carnegie Hall to Broadway and then back via Grand Central station and Lexington.
You either love New York or you hate it. I’m in the former group. It’s like London, I feel at very much at home when I’m there. But of course it’s quite different to Sydney.
Needless to say we visited the various museums; the Empire State Building; Radio City Music Hall; the Chrysler Building, from outside and above; took a Circle Line tour around the island, taking in the Statue of Liberty; and went to the Opera at the MET one night (la Traviata). We also did the ‘sex in the city thing’, based on the TV show, and shopped. I picked up some new skis and boots from the after winter sales and a new camera. The catalogue of Wendy’s purchases is too long to list here.
Then it was time to pick up the rental car and drive to Washington.
We stayed in Georgetown a pretty part of Washington that was a pleasant stroll along the Potomac, past the Watergate hotel, to the Lincoln memorial. Alternatively you can take the subway or a local bus into town, past the White House. Washington is home to the National Museum of Art and the National Air and Space Museum as well as the Smithsonian and the National Museum of Natural History. It is commonly thought that Washington was laid out by the founding fathers along Masonic Lines, an idea further popularised by Dan Brown in his latest book. It abounds in grand vistas triangularly arranged.
The trip down was a wonderful demonstration of the cultural and intellectual diversity of the United States. As you leave New York the car radio can still pick up the classical music stations, jazz or classic rock. But very soon the only music available is country. Or as they say in the Blues Brothers Movie there are two kinds of music in non-urban America: country; and western. This is interspersed with shock jock talk shows; becoming more and more ‘born again’ as you go south. The topic of the day, subject to vitriolic abuse, was a New York school that had undertaken a disaster recovery exercise based on a scenario of the school being taken over by a Christian extremist group. The shock jocks and their listeners of course claimed that this was political correctness gone mad. Obviously a Muslim extremist group had been transposed into a Christian one for reasons of political correctness. None of the phone-ins made the obvious point that Oklahoma bombing; and numerous school shooting sprees have been the work of nominal Christians; or remarked on the dangerous nature of religious extremist groups of all kinds.
The highway Service Centres were another eye opener. It was like being on the set of ‘Roxanne’ or ‘Married with Children’, except the out of control children were not very amusing and one wondered how long the hugely obese, yet often quite young, parents and their screaming, ill spoken children, would survive a heart attack.
The surprising thing is that when you are in a major city in the United States the majority of the people in the street look relatively slim and healthy; and children are well behaved in restaurants and other public places. If anything, children in New York seem prematurely adult.
The United States is confronting other ways too. For a large part of the population religious fundamentalism appears to be a way of life. Yet the United States has some of the finest brains in the world. On the way down to Washington we were listening to people, with some apparent authority amongst their flock, who clearly believe that the world is no more than 6,000 years old. Yet in Washington itself there are museums the proclaim the life of the universe to be 13.7 billion years, so far, and that display the United States’ amazing achievements in space exploration, astronomy, geology, anthropology and so on. It as if two, or perhaps two hundred, different worlds coexist with little or no crossover.
After a pleasant couple of days seeing the sights: the White House; Arlington cemetery; the Lincoln Memorial; the Washington Monument; the Capitol; visiting the museums; and the enjoying the restaurants and coffee shops of Georgetown; we set out for Boston. But on the way I wanted to visit Baltimore and perhaps Philadelphia. Although Baltimore Harbour was interesting it’s not an exciting city. On the way out I found the road system confusing. I got lost. Then we found ourselves in an area where the people were unhelpful and one ot two made aggressive gestures. We both felt tourists like us were not welcome there. Perhaps our skin was the wrong colour. I quickly turned the car around and retraced my steps. Eventually I found a way out but we had lost so much time that we could do little more than drive quickly through Philadelphia on the highway. No Liberty Bell for us.
Washington had been sunny and warm, T shirt and shorts weather but in Boston it was still winter. Is snowed for part of the time we were there. Boston is a beautiful city and the home to some of the most famous universities and scientific institutions. We took a drive through the snow to Harvard and on another finer day, walked to the city campus of MIT.
I find Boston fascinating for its place in history. Tourists can take a walk along the Freedom Trail; we did. In the Harbour is moored the USS Constitution also known as Old Ironsides. This is still the official flagship of the U.S. navy. It dates back to the war of 1812 when the United States declared war on Britain and attacked Canada. This resulted in the British successfully invading and burning Washington, and generally marching up and down the country creating havoc, before signing a peace treaty and leaving. That's my potted view of history anyway.
But the great British navy was brought to its knees by the upstart Americans who with a combination of superior seamanship and better ships decisively beat the British at sea on several occasions. The British learnt a salutary lesson. They also failed to take Baltimore and this is the subject of the Star Spangled Banner. The ‘rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air’, are British rockets.
While the War of Independence gained popular support with the catch cry ‘no taxation without representation’ and a general feeling that the American Colonies were being set upon to pay for government in London, another more commercial motivation was in play. This was the restriction on trade imposed by British treaties with the Native Americans, in particular those limiting the colonists’ expansion into the Northwest Territories and the remaining British colonies to the north, Canada. After Independence these restrictions on further geographic expansion the led the United States to again declare war.
Another motivation for the war was the British habit of pressing American Sailors into the British navy. This backfired as these were the sailors who, drilled in British navel tactics, out-sailed and outmanoeuvred them in superior ships like the Constitution.
In its eventual outcome the war was a success for the United States as it opened the way to westward expansion and Britain ceased to be an enemy; but in general the actual battles did not go well for the Americans.
In popular culture this is an almost forgotten war, sandwiched between the American War of Independence and the Civil War. The principal American land victory, the Battle of New Orleans, was won in January 1815 after the British had already agreed to leave. A peace treaty, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed by both parties in December 1814. Nevertheless it made Major General Andrew Jackson a national hero and the Battle of New Orleans was proclaimed a huge victory, in that a great number of British soldiers were pointlessly killed. In 1803 the United States had acquired territory to the south with the Louisiana Purchase from the French; over eight hundred thousand square miles for $15 million. It was alleged that certain British interests saw the war as an opportunity to seize this new territory. The battle was ‘sold’ as having put an end to those aspirations. Of course it achieved nothing of the kind; that battle was already won in December.
From a British perspective it was a relatively minor war, in the context of the Napoleonic wars at the time, but the treaty reconciled Britain and the United States and acknowledged the latter’s right to existence. As a result they have generally been allies ever since.
Boston is where you learn most about the founding fathers. When I am there I imagine I can understand them better. Apart from their strong mercantile backgrounds there was a very strong Unitarian and intellectual sentiment amongst the group. Several were polymaths and at least one, Benjamin Franklin, is widely regarded as a genius. There is still a prominent Unitarian church and Unitarian of organisational structure in Boston and of course Harvard has always been a strong influence on intellectual development in the United States.
Interestingly Charles Darwin was also a Unitarian before he lost his faith altogether. It is a strand of Christianity that embraces the enlightenment and enlightenment values. It is sympathetic with the Masons as it holds that there is only one God, the creator of the universe, in contrast to the Roman and middle ages concept of a Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some Unitarians are not theists in the strictest sense at all.
It is one of the interesting strands of early American cultural development, along with the various protestant sects that fled England and Europe with the Establishment of the Church of England as the state religion and various sectarian reprisals in Europe.
This religious and intellectual parchment was then illuminated by successive waves of immigration largely from Europe, Germans; Irish; Russian and continental Jews; Scandinavians; and Italians. With the southward annexation of Florida followed by the Mexican Territories and when the Republic of California joined the federation Spanish culture was melded into the mix. The annexation, or ‘liberation’, of the bulk of the Spanish empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific, led to further waves of Spanish speaking immigration. Australia is one of the few countries in the world that can boast the same level of cultural diversity as United States of America. It’s an endlessly fascinating place.
From Boston we returned to New York down the coast from Massachusetts to Rhode Island; and on into Connecticut, stopping overnight in New Haven.
I was particularly keen to get to New York in time to go to the Cloisters in Fort Tyron Park before we returned the car at the Airport and flew out. This is best visited by car. Wendy was very dubious about my enthusiasm but was soon converted, proclaiming the Cloisters one of the best things she had seen during the whole trip. The Cloisters overlook the Hudson River and incorporate medieval cloisters from five French abbeys together with gardens incorporating plants mentioned in medieval manuscripts. They are the gift of John D Rockefeller Jr who also purchased a major collection of medieval art and artefacts that are housed there. The Cloisters provide an amazingly peaceful atmosphere, when there are not too many visitors, complimented occasionally by softly played Gregorian Chants.
They immediately bring home the attraction of medieval Christianity and a monastic lifestyle. It is easy to see how intelligent people in the Middle Ages would find this attractive in a time when all informed people still believed that this Earth was the centre of the universe and all creation was intended by its creator to culminate in humankind, formed in His image.
From this it is a small step to believing in that one is saved from the consequences of falling short of God’s intended design and hopes for us, one’s sins, by the sacrifice of His human son on our behalf. In consequence there was no higher calling than to spend one’s life in praise of the creator for His beneficence; through one’s every living act.
This cosmology may seem silly to day; when we know we are certainly not at the centre of, or the central object of, creation. We now understand that each of us is but one possible arrangement of cells following a structure evolved from our ancestors, in that way similar to all the other animals and living things on the planet; that life probably accidentally infected the earth 3 to 4 billion years ago and it is probable that many other galactic objects are similarly infected; that the earth is an insignificant planet that orbits the sun and our galaxy in an unimaginably vast universe; and that humans have existed in our present form for an infinitesimally brief flash of time, much less than a thousandth of one galactic orbit. One galactic orbit takes approximately 250,000,000 terrestrial years; our galaxy, just one of trillions, has already turned at least 50 times and is expected to go on turning for a lot longer.
Nevertheless there are few places more beautiful; or containing objects as beautiful; or as culturally significant to Europeans; as the Cloisters.
This is an edited gallery of my photographs from the trip - click on the image:
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