Friday, October 22, 2010

The Empire State Building and The Statue of Liberty: New York Travel Tips

The Empire State Building, in October 2009, lit in blue and white for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ 125th Anniversary (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The evening after we visited Little Italy and Chinatown, Luis had the idea that it would be better to visit the Empire State Building at night to avoid the crowds and to get a spectacular view of the city and its lights. I'd only visited the ESB twice before, twenty years apart, once in the 70's and once in the 90's and never at night, so we made our way to 5th and 33rd. He was right: there were only about 20 other people visiting when we arrived and no line at all until we got to security. The last couple of times I visited (both times with out of town guests), the line had been practically out the door with at least two hours of waiting. This time, we flew through the roped lines, and arrived at the door to the elevator in only 15 minutes, arriving via the high speed elevator at the observation deck on the 80th floor less than a minute later. The night was crystal clear, no haze at all, and so we had an excellent view of the city laid out like a shimmering jewel box, filled with golden lights, the multi-colored pocket of neon lights of Times Square and the strings of white lights that adorn the city's bridges. It was an incredible view, like something created on a movie set. The winds were high, but it was worth visiting at night for the double benefit of avoiding the lines and crowds and to see a view that many people miss.

The spectacular view from the Empire State Building at night (photo by Luis Bastardo)  

 According to the ESB website, the Art Deco style Empire State Building was built in 1930 and was the highest building at its time at 103 floors and a height of 1,454 feet (443.2 meters). It was only overtaken in 1972 with the completion of the World Trade Center's North Tower. It took only a year and 45 days to build and, including the purchase of the land, cost $40,948,900 (about $5.2 billion in 2010 dollars), bringing the building in well under budget and ahead of schedule, thanks in part to the reduced prices of labor and materials brought on by the Great Depression. The building houses 6,500 windows and 73 elevators, including six freight elevators, operating at speeds from 600 to 1,000 feet per minute. More than 110 million people have visited the observations decks of the ESB since its construction (between 10,000 and 20,000 people visit every day). Luckily, very few of them were in attendance on the night we visited.

An early morning view of The Statue of Liberty from our boat (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

Inspired by our success at the ESB, Luis had a similar idea to visit the Statue of Liberty very early in the morning before the mobs of tourists arrived; another stroke of genius as it turned out. We looked up the schedule for the ferry service out to Liberty Island and Ellis Island and found that the earliest ferry departed at 8:30am, so we got up early, and took the 1 subway train to the South Ferry Station and were the first to arrive at Battery Park. We had intended to buy crown tickets so we could climb all the way to the top, but forgot all about them when we became engrossed in conversation with another couple who had arrived right after us. The ferries travel first to Liberty Island and then to Ellis Island, and in my past experience, are so packed with hot and grumpy tourists that it seems to be a masochistic attempt on the part of the National Park Service to recreate the original "Ellis Island Experience". This time, though, there were only about 30 passengers on the boat: us, the other couple and a group of Norwegian tourists.  

The main processing hall for immigrants arriving at Ellis Island (photo by Luis Bastardo)

We stopped at Liberty Island to visit the Statue of Liberty, first perusing its interesting museum, followed by an easy stair climb to the first level observation deck (we'd have to visit the crown next time). A gift from France in 1886, the copper statue stands at 151 feet (46 meters) and weighs 450,000 lbs (204 metric tons). The statue receives about four million visitors each year. After September 11, the interior of the statue was not open to visitors, but it has since reopened, and the views from the crown and observation deck of lower Manhattan are spectacular.

Ellis Island is the second ferry stop, and well worth visiting. Although many tourists opt to only visit Liberty Island, in many ways Ellis Island is much more interesting, as it was the first stop for over 12 million immigrants arriving in the United States from 1892 to 1954. There is an excellent museum housing immigrant belongings donated by their families, original graffiti preserved on the waiting room walls and renovated dorms, clinics and the main processing area, where immigrants would wait to hear whether they would be allowed into the United States or would have to return via an arduous sea journey to their home countries. Although only 2% of immigrants were rejected for reasons of illness or lack of financial support or skills, many immigrants sat nervously for hours worrying about their fate. It is possible to search records free of charge to look through the manifests of arriving and processed immigrants and, to my surprise, members of both our families had indeed arrived at the island. For those interested in U.S. or New York City history, or tracing their family's roots, Ellis Island is a treasure trove of information.

 Original luggage brought in by immigrants, donated by their families to the museum, Ellis Island (photo by Luis Bastardo)

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