Jun 03

10 Things not to do in New York City

Having worked in NYC for the past 10 years, as well as being a tourist in the city on several occasions I’ve noticed some things that tourist do that you’ll want to avoid when visiting. These are some tips to keep you from acting too much like a tourist, since I know most of you are trying to blend in at least a little bit.

1. Ask where Times Square is when you’re in Times Square. I was standing on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and someone asked me where Times Square is. If all the bright flashing lights don’t give away Times Square I don’t know what to tell you.

2. Ask where a Broadway show is by the name of the theater. Believe it or not I have no idea where the Minskoff Theatre is, I wouldn’t even know where it was if I was standing in front of it. But ask me where the Lion King is and I’ll point you in the right direction. Even better, tell me the street address, that’s the easiest way for a NYer to tell you where something is located.

3. Wait to cross the street until the the light changes. They seem to do this in other cities, but not in NYC. It’s a sure sign that you’re not a local. I don’t suggest doing what a lot of locals do though, stick your baby carriage into a lane of traffic to see if it’s safe to go.

4. Drive, this isn’t just about looking like a tourist, but for your sanity and safety. Parking is expensive and while the driving isn’t nearly as bad as in other cities I’ve visited, it’s not for the feint of heart. If you do, watch out for the people sticking the baby carriage out into the street to see if you’re there.

5. Leave valuables unattended.. Putting your bag on the back of your chair at an internet cafe or at a restaurant and then not pay attention to it. People do this all the time and have their stuff stolen. Anyone who has lost their passport can tell you that you want to be even more careful when your stuff is valuable, like a passport or a camera. People are always losing cameras, passports, drivers licenses and usually you will find that the person left it unattended or just wasn’t paying attention.

6. Not know the name and address of the place you are staying. So you’re out having some dinner, drinks and in general enjoying yourself and now it’s time to find your way back to your hotel. But was the hotel on East 42nd Street or West 42nd Street, hmmmm. Know where your hotel is, maybe take a business card from the hotel. When you’re too drunk to remember where it is you can hand the business card to a cabbie and they’ll take you home. Otherwise, you’ll be wandering around the city for a while…

7. Travel in packs with matching outfits/backpacks/hats. This is a dead giveaway that you’re a tourist and you’re generally considered on the more naive end of the tourist scale making you a good candidate for pickpockets and scams. The good thing is you’re in a big group and hopefully looking out for each other.

8. Go to see the Christmas Tree lighting in Rockefeller Plaza. I plan to do a post on this when the event is closer. But this is a made for TV event and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see the actual tree, but don’t expect to see anything else.

9. Take a Livery Cab. ALWAYS, ALWAYS take a yellow Taxi. Unless of course you previously booked with a livery service. This is particularly important when arriving at the airport, you will find men trying to entice you to hire them. They will typically overcharge you, may not drop you off where they are supposed to and may try to scam you along the way. If they do try to scam you, call the police. The threat might get them to do things right, if not the police will help sort things out. Taxi’s either use the meter or if picking up from an airport use a flat rate depending on where you are going. I will cover this topic in another post in more depth.

10. Stay at the Marriott Marquis. I know this sounds crazy, but I stayed here once and unless I got a really good price, I wouldn’t do it again. It’s a nice hotel with some great amenities, but the elevators are AWFUL! Possibly the worst I’ve ever dealt with and we have bad ones at work. Any time I am there and need to visit any of the pre-lobby floors (the lobby is on the 8th floor) I take the escalators. There are other nice hotels in Times Square consider some of them first.

Mar 23

Tenement Museum, NYC

This past weekend I went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, I had heard good things about this museum and I agree – it’s a very good museum. It’s located at 97 Orchard Street and the museum store is across the street at 108 Orchard Street, this is where you can arrange for a tour. The museums mission: promote tolerance and historical perspective and help preserve our immigrant heritage.

97 Orchard Street was a tenement house from the 1860’s until 1935 when it was deemed uninhabitable. In 1935 they sealed off the apartments and rented only the 4 store fronts. In 1997 the owner sold the building to the Tenement Museum people (Ruth Abram), the building is now a National Historical Site. Access to the museum is only available by one of the 4 tours offered inside the museum, there is also a lower east side walking tour available seasonally. The tours inside the museum are approximately 1 hour, the walking tour is 90 minutes.

I took an 11:45 tour called Piecing it Together, this tour concentrated on the growth of the garment industry on the lower east side. My tour guide, who was excellent (J.R. McCarthy), spoke a little bit about the museum from outside and then took us inside. Walking into the museum is like walking back in time, it’s lack of preservation is well preserved. The formerly redish wallpaper is now soot covered and gray/black. The metal covered ceiling is peeling, dark and dirty. I think the conditions in here struck me more then they did when I walked inside the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The museum also only offers limited lighting, similar to what you would have found back when the gas lighting was added.

We were first taken to one of the tenements that had not been fixed up since it was opened. The layers of linoleum floor were peeling, the layers of wallpaper were peeling, the wallpaper on the ceiling was peeling, pieces of the walls were missing, where the wood floor was still exposed it was heavily warn. Next we went to see 2 tenements – one housed a couple there 5 children and also served as a garment factory, this was a one bedroom. The second was the home of a garment worker. My tour guide described life in a tenement and the life of a new immigrant – no matter where they were from they were all living in the same circumstances. We also learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the growth of the garment industry in New York City.

I thought this was a great museum, and absolutely worth a stop for anyone visiting NYC. The building allows a genuine visualization of tenement life at the turn of the century and my guide bridged the gap of understanding the lives of the people who lived in these tenements. My guide also talked about immigration and touched on the different groups who lived in these lower east side tenements.

If you’re interested in visiting the museum I would recommend booking a tour on-line or in person prior to your visit to the museum. I visited in March and several of the tours were already fully booked 2 days prior. My NYC guide book (Foders New York City 2009) recommends this museum for children. However, I’m not sure my 10 year old nephew would have the attention span for this, nor do I think he would appreciate the power of it. If you are interested in taking a child here the Confino Family Tour is recommended for children 5 and up or I would suggest looking into the childrens programs that are offered.

Mar 15

American Museum of Natural History

This weekend I went to the American Museum of Natural History in NYC with my sister, brother-in-law and 3 year old nephew. My nephew was really excited to see the dinosaurs, which he knows more about then I do. Natural history isn’t totally my thing, but lately I’ve thought I need to get out and visit these museums in NYC and I got invited here so I gave it a shot. There were some good things, and some not so good things.

Our first stop was the dinosaur rooms, which were really nice, even for a novice like me. Of note is that the T-Rex is mostly made of real T-Rex bones and was recently repositioned to represent what the newer research indicates was a more likely position for the T-Rex. We also went to see Dinosaurs Alive at the IMAX, which was really interesting, and showed how dedicated the museum is to dinosaur research (they dropped a lot of names of people who were working for the museum and are doing the filed research.) If you’re interested in dinosaurs this place is definitely worth visiting. The IMAX wasn’t quiet as good as some others I have seen, but the others I have seen were based on real video (one of the coral reefs and one from space) but this one was a mixture of things – video and computer technology, it ended up not being as dynamic as I’ve come to expect from IMAX movies.

The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life and the African Mammal Hall. I’m covering these together because my thoughts on them are pretty much the same. These halls are not a reason to visit this museum. They’re like the poor man’s Zoo and Aquarium. It’s not that the exhibits are cheap, but its dead stuffed animals with little bits of information about them. Unless the animal is extinct find a Zoo or Aquarium to see it in, it will be a much better experience. My 3 year old nephew did love these two rooms though, so maybe kids will like it.

We did make quick stops in a couple other rooms, but didn’t spend much time in them:
Northwest Coast Indians – this room seemed to have a bit of promise, though I suspect that the amount of stuff on exhibit might not make it to the top of the list of places to visit for someone really interested in this. But then again I don’t know too much about this topic so I could be wrong.
Human Origins – This was actually a pretty interesting exhibit and a place I wouldn’t have minded spending a little more time in. Though I suspect that someone who believes in creation wouldn’t want to bother stopping here.
Hall of Planet Earth – Another exhibit that showed some promise, but my nephew wanted to go home and play with his new dinosaurs so we didn’t spend much time in here.

Some other notes about the museum: I found the ticket line to be long at 1:00 on a Saturday and poor signage to explain different ticketing options. It was my first time there and found it confusing. You need to pay for admission and then for the IMAX and for any current/temporary exhibits. If we had realized this we probably would have gotten tickets for the climate change exhibit, but by the time we realized it, it was too late. The cafeteria is pretty nice, though it was so crowded and there were so many choices that it was a little overwhelming. There were the usual grilled options, a nice looking salad bar, sandwiches, pizza as well as some entrees and desserts. I wouldn’t shy away from eating here, though it’s not the cheapest option.

Mar 09

You Americans have no culture!

I was told this recently by a drunk Asian girl who had just been arrested. I suggested that our culture is to get drunk, do something stupid and get arrested. I don’t think she got the joke. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard this, but I’m not buying it. I think if you travel within western countries I think you’ll find that cultural differences are much more subtle. Come to the US from Egypt and things might seem a little different. But either way there is culture her in the US, but it’s made up of bits and pieces of other cultures and then it evolves over time. I’m going to talk a bit about New York culture in this post and then another day talk about culture in America more generally.

If you come to New York and all you see is the Empire State Building, Times Square and a couple museums you wont find too much culture. The first thing to realize is that New York City is filled with immigrants and decedents of immigrants. We have all the typical things you’ll find in other big cities like China Town or Little Italy, but head out to Brighten Beach and you’ll find Russian Jews, there are a lot of communities like that. Just a 100 or so years ago the lower east side as filled with tenements, which were filled with poor immigrants from all over the world (what Country might depend on the year). Today you’ll still find remnants of the Jews that lived there, only you’ll find that their Synagogues are emptier. You’ll also find quite a few new bars and clubs in the area. It’s a place that Jacob Riis described in How the Other Half Lives and today see this area “gentrified,” it’s a testament to the perseverance of American’s to improve their lot in life. The American dream is to give your children more then you had, and it’s a driving force in the way people live their lives.

There is a hustle and bustle to NYC that you wont find in a lot of other cities, people live and work here every day. People are very task oriented. At 8am at 34th Street and 7th Avenue people are figuring out how to get across the street the fastest without getting run over. We cross the street when there is a break in the traffic, we don’t wait for the little walking man – who has time for that? But at the same time if you were to stop a NYer and ask for help, they would probably help you. Our Police play a role too. You wont find as many con-games or expert pick pockets as you do in other large cites, we have it here, but it’s actively pursued by the Police which isn’t always the case in other places. The Police attempt to run everything extremely orderly, sometimes to the hindrance of the people who are trying to enjoy the event. But have you ever heard of people getting trampled at New Years Eve in Times Square? There is a certain orderly chaos to this sometimes rough city, but often you’ll find that their is a softer side to it too. We’ll help, you just have to know how to ask.