Have you ever wondered what the universe was like before the Big Bang? All the hundreds of billions of light-years of matter and space compacted into one infinitesimally small dot. That thought can easily break your mind. So, let’s scale it back a few levels. How about the entire world (earth) in one tiny spot? We come very close to that. Not a tiny spot (or an object you could hold in your hands). But, if you ever really want to see what the entire world looks like in one location, just visit New York City!!
Oh, New York, you are certainly one of the most familiar places on this planet!! I could’ve easily chosen Washington, D.C., Chicago, London, Paris, or Rome, but there’s something distinctly unique about you. Although the Dutch initially founded you, today you represent nearly every nationality, race, and ethnicity from across the globe! What hasn’t been depicted, written about, or spoken/sung of you?
In every disaster movie from The Day After Tomorrow to Cloverfield, you’re the first place to go. Where haven’t we seen you? You are the centerpiece of Hamilton, Seinfeld, Friends, The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, Girls, Sex and the City, Spin City, Night Court, Mad Men, Succession, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Spider-Man, Raging Bull, The Age of Innocence, King Kong, An Affair to Remember, Home Alone 2, Saturday Night Live, and tens of thousands of other plays, films, books, and shows. You are like Mecca to all the world’s artists, thespians, musicians, athletes, and financiers!
People know your accent…your everyday, type-A surliness…your famous teams- Yankees, Mets, Globetrotters, Knicks, and Giants. People know you as the place where the fiery, smoking towers fell, and where the plumes of dust sent people fleeing for their lives! Decades before 9/11, one daring Frenchman crossed that expanse on a tightrope (no harnesses). Nearly a decade after 9/11, a major aviation hero safely landed a plane in the Hudson. During Covid-19, you were something you never were before—a ghost town! You are the spot where everyone from Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Jay-Z, Robert DeNiro, Tina Fey, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Tom Hanks, Frances McDormand, Alec Baldwin, and Larry David to Margaret Sanger, George Gershwin, John Jacob Astor, Theodore Roosevelt, Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Alexander Hamilton keep/kept their digs!
But enough of the long lists. We’ll never exhaust them! For the time being, reader, imagine yourself, dead center in Times Square—right at the juncture of W. 45th Street and 7th Avenue. Imagine all the sights, sounds, and smells: all the giant, bright marquees for Disney, Kodak, McDonalds, Corona Light, Chipotle, and Apple. Yellow taxis honking…big city buses zooming past. All the screeching…the millions of footsteps…the birds tweeting…the dogs barking…the buskers playing their guitars, xylophones, and cellos…the fresh aroma of hot dogs, pretzels, bagels, and pizza. This is where people shop, eat, and see world-renowned plays. It’s where the Macy’s Day Parade is held, it’s near where the giant Christmas tree is erected every December, and it’s where the ball drops every New Years Eve. This is one of the most experientially significant places on earth!
Travel a few miles south…past Battery Park and across the harbor, and you’ll of course find America’s own [new] Colossus of Rhodes…the one and only timeless monument…the Statue of Liberty! Gaze upon it…all 305 feet (93 meters) of pure social and existential symbolism…. the welcoming light to the world1! She holds a lit torch in one hand and a tablet (no, not that kind of tablet) in her other hand1. The torch measures 29 feet (8.8 meters) from the bottom of the handle to the flame tip, which visitors could access via a 42-foot (12.8-meter) service ladder between 1886 and 19161. An elevator carries current visitors to the observation deck in the pedestal. A spiral staircase leads to an observation platform in the figure’s crown1. The statue’s own crown jewel (no pun intended) is Emma Lazarus’s poem (“The New Colossus”) at the base of the statue:
At the behest of the French people and Édouard de Laboulaye (a French historian), Frederic Auguste Bartholdi began work on the world-renowned statue in 18751. He built it with copper, using four giant steel supports (which Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel designed), and he hammered each piece into shape by hand1. The designers presented the work to American minister to France, Levi Morton, on July 4, 1884, in Paris1. In 1885, France sent the 151-foot, 1-inch (46-meter) high, 225-ton statue to the United States 1. American architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the pedestal inside the walls of Ford Wood on Bedloe’s Island1.
President Grover Cleveland dedicated the statue on October 28, 18861. Throughout the statue’s 137-year history, people have repaired and repainted it, remodified its torch (adding electricity in 1916), and UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 19841. Millions visit it every year, and it serves as an eternal welcoming symbol to people all over the world. If the situation is hopeless elsewhere, the potential for a better life and better opportunities awaits you here!
Not far from the Statue of Liberty is, of course, the once-operational Ellis Island (now a museum). Ellis Island, located in Upper New York Bay as well, served as the principal immigration reception center for people newly arriving via the Atlantic2. The island- an approximate mile (1.6 km) from Manhattan, and about 1,300 feet (400 meters) from New Jersey- often went by the nickname “the Gateway to the New World”2. The island expanded to 27 acres through extensive land reclamation projects, but the current area consists of landfill2. The city named the island after its owner, 1770s Manhattan merchant, Samuel Ellis2.
The state of New York sold it in 1808 to the federal government, and it became a fort and powder magazine2. It served as the nation’s main immigration center from 1892-19242. During that period, at least 12 million immigrants passed through it2. Of those who immigrated into New York, first and second-class passengers usually went straight into the city (checks were performed on board)2. Third-class passengers though often went through legal and medical evaluations (sometimes lasting three-five hours) in the Great Hall on Ellis Island2. Ellis Island served as a detention center from 1943 to 1954, and then became property of the National Park Service in 1976 (the year of the nation’s bicentennial celebration)2. Today it’s the Ellis Island Immigration Museum2.
Return from Upper New York Bay- past the walnut-and-chestnut-tree-filled Governor’s Island (which the Dutch acquired in 1637, colonial governors used as a place of residence, livestock farm, and quarantine station from 1698, and which served as a home for Civil War Confederate soldiers and the U.S. 1st Army Headquarters until 1966)- back to the island of Manhattan3! Return to your original spot and head several blocks in any direction. The Majestic, Neil Simon, Lena Horne, Al Hirschfield, Sony Hall, Shubert, Marquise, St. James, Lyric, John Golden, Amsterdam, and Richard Rogers Theaters await…the bright lights, music, and Broadway shows- Hamilton, The Lion King, Mean Girls, Rent, Phantom of the Opera, In the Heights, West Side Story, Oklahoma, and so many more!
Then you have the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center, SNL at 30 Rock, the Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Hall a few blocks up and over to the west, and the Flatiron Building further south. City Hall, the Chrysler Building, Union Square, Madison Avenue, Wall Street, the Plaza Hotel, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity Church, the Waldorf Astoria, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and Grand Central Station are also all within a stone’s throw (well…maybe more of a “stone’s [catapulted projection]”). Go much further south to Brooklyn and you’ll hit Prospect Park. Travel north into the Bronx and you’ll hit Yankee Stadium. Venture out to Queens and you’ll hit La Guardia. Sail back south down to Staten Island and you’ll hit Fort Wadsworth.
But if New York City is one of the world’s major microcosms, then New York City itself has its own microcosm(s)…its own Big Apple(s). The high, mighty, majestic, and renowned landmarks/sites draw our attention before anything else does. The Statue of Liberty is one. Wall Street and Broadway are a few more, and, arguably, the Empire State Building, Central Park, One World Trade Center, and, of course, Times Square, are the other four!
Let’s start with the one that commands the entire horizon…the one that pokes every divinity in the eye…the Empire State Building. The steel-framed behemoth that rises 102 stories finished up construction in 19314. Located in Midtown Manhattan at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, it was the tallest building in the world until 1971 (barely beating out the Chrysler Building, which claimed that title in 1929)4. The Empire State Building was originally 1,250 feet (381 meters) high (this includes its iconic spire, which the designer originally intended to use for mooring airships)4. In 1950, they added a 222-foot (68-meter) antenna (but they replaced it in 1985)4. The skyscraper’s current height is 1,454 feet (443 meters)4.
Its two main builders were John J. Raskob, a self-made mogul and former General Motors chairman, and Al Smith, a former Democratic New York governor (both were from struggling immigrant Roman Catholic families)4. They built the skyscraper on the former site of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and it opened on May 1, 1931, during the midst of the Great Depression4. For a long span of time, a lot of its office space remained un-rented, earning the building a pejorative nickname, “The Empty State Building”4. However, millions of tourists visit it each year (especially the observatories on the 86th and 102nd floor), and some of the most iconic American films have featured it—including King Kong (1933), An Affair to Remember (1957), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993)4.
Central Park…Manhattan’s great mid-city oasis! Over 840 acres (340 hectares), Central Park extends between 59th and 110th Streets & Fifth and Eighth Avenues5. William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing both called for a large new park to be built on Manhattan with the rapid 1840s-era increase in urbanization5. The state legislature called for an appropriation of at least $5,000,000, and, with public support, they cleared up land to build (1857)5.
They removed numerous bone-boiling works, hovels, livestock, and open sewers/drains, and then landscape architects Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux devised a plan to enhance the terrain’s natural features while still creating a pastoral park for city residents5. They dumped on the terrain millions of topsoil and dirt, planted approximately 5,000,000 trees and shrubs, laid a water-supply system, and constructed many bridges, arches, and roads5. The park, which officially opened in 1876, is filled with various types of vegetation, gentle slopes, shady glens, flat grassy swards, steep, rocky ravines, a zoo, ice-skating rink, three small lakes, a band shell, open-air theater, fountains, and playgrounds. It also contains hundreds of small statues and plaques, bicycle paths, sports fields, and even roadways5. Shakespearean productions have been held there, as have numerous other plays, concerts, and everyday events.
If you are of a certain age, you undoubtedly remember where you were that fateful day! The Pentagon…the field in Pennsylvania…the Twin Towers! The smoke and flames, the second hit, the buildings collapsing like pancakes…all the citizens scurrying from the wreckage…and the heroic firefighters, civil servants, and other people risking their lives to save others! At the National September 11, 2001 Memorial & Museum two enormous fountain-pools mark where the original towers stood. But One World Trade Center (a.k.a. One WTC or “Freedom Tower”) rises triumphantly near it!
The centerpiece of reconstruction at the site of Ground Zero opened in 2014. Workers spent nearly a year recovering bodies and removing debris from the complex site, and an intense conversation ensued on both what to rebuild and how to do it6. Daniel Libeskind won an international design competition held for it in 20026. His plan combined a glass tower with open memorial gardens that represent the “footprints” of the fallen towers6. Due to safety and commercial concerns, the city overrode that design6.
Construction began in 2006, and, 8 years later, the tapering, shifting, and prismatic 1,776-foot tower was complete6. The shimmering glass façade, which produces a kaleidoscopic display of light as the sun and clouds pass overhead, conceals the structure’s extremely robust, concrete interior. One WTC’s spire earns the building top spot as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere (surpassing the Willis Tower in Chicago)6.
And finally…Times Square. The Center of it all! The site in which America commemorates every lap around the sun we make! Located in Midtown Manhattan, Times Square- which the intersections of Seventh Avenue, 42nd Street, and Broadway form- used to go by the nickname “Long Acre”7. In the 1890s it had an unsavory reputation for illicit activities (although it had been a commercial and residential area earlier that century)7. The New York Times renamed it Times Square (for the Times Tower) in 1904, and, almost immediately, New Yorkers gathered there every December 31 to watch the huge glass ball descend the flagpole7. At the turn of the 20th century, many illustrious theaters popped up along 42nd Street, and the Broadway region arguably became one of the most famous entertainment centers in the world7!
People also gave Times Square a different moniker- the “Crossroads of the World”7! Many (live) theaters closed during the Great Depression (and were converted into movie theaters), while, in the 1960s and 1970s, sleazy adult cineplexes dotted the crime-ridden area (watch the 1976 film Taxi Driver for a better illustration of this)7. But then, in the 1990s, the city reintroduced many large, tourist-friendly stores, restaurants, and theaters, bringing a resurgence to the famous spot7.
Times Square’s other main feature is, of course, all its signage…all its big, bright neon marquees, billboards, and screens! Beginning in 1928, the “zipper” used at least 14,800 lightbulbs to render moving headlines7.Over the years, many famous signs, including a huge cup of coffee (with steam rising out) and a cigarette-smoking man (which an episode of Seinfeld humorously paid homage to) have appeared. Today, you can view names like Old Navy, Hulu, Nasdaq, T-Mobile, Dell, iStock, LG, McDonalds, Virgin Mobile, Gap, and Facebook high above you!
Center of the Universe? No. Unfortunately, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) claims that title, but, for all intents and purposes, New York City (alongside metropolises like London, Paris, Tokyo, and Beijing) really is an earthly microcosm. The millions of people…the thousands of buildings…the near galactic level of activity transpiring at any given moment! All the stock exchanges, otherworldly theatrical performances, and idiosyncratic subway riders engaging in all sorts of strange and wild shenanigans! There’s a theory and/or hypothesis in the world of biology and A.I. that if any system becomes complex enough, it’ll generate consciousness. Have cities like the Big Apple reached that threshold? If we were to interview any of the five boroughs, what would they tell us? Maybe they’d tell us (in that endearingly abrasive manner): “Hey buddy. No interviews. Time is money! We got to move on!”