Burning through the Land of Hope and Dreams

Now, regardless of what anyone says about America being cheap, they’re wrong; it’s not, not on the East Coast side at least. Nothing is complementary. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Obesity, you don’t need to pay any extra for – that risk comes for free. You’re also guaranteed the most unpredictable and exciting journey that is worth far more than the sum of the fares and tickets. A friend once said to me that upon leaving a theme park in the States, it is like you are entering another, on a far grander scale… I couldn’t agree more.

New York City 

Maybe the Piano Man was right – it is a state of mind. I had no idea what to expect. Only going to India when I was 19, did I have as much anticipation on the plane. Having booked into the Jazz on Columbus hostel, a 10 minute walk from Times Square, I was intrigued to find out what the kind of vibe would be – but then our plane got hit by lightning, and upon emerging from the summer storm to land at JFK, I was given the most surreal introduction to the Manhattan skyline … #nofilter20160702_003109

Crawling through Queens in the back of a cab on a wet Friday night with the silhouettes of the high risers encompassing the streets, one suddently stuck out, seeming to defy physical logic – 432 Park Avenue. Google it. Taller than the World Trade Centre (both the old and new are an identical height), yet more slender than a standard apartment block, it looked bizarre, out-of-place and being residential, with prices going for over $90m, it defies monetary logic too apparently.

Then I was chucked out onto 56th & 8th at midnight, with a Big Apple to slice.

I will always consider London, with perhaps a slight bias, to be the greatest and most diverse city in the world. But New York has an energy and intensity which maybe cannot be matched – especially on 4th of July weekend. From bus-ing round Brooklyn and seeing the DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) community to walking the 1.5-mile Highline, from riding round Central Park to being greeted by four quickfire gunshots by my Harlem brothers, there is so much to experience on every level.

Being at the top of 1 World Trade Freedom Tower on 4th of July was mind-blowing; definitely worth paying the $37, even for the lift experience and the Memorial below is the most sobering public setting I have seen.

Ellis Island is certainly worth a visit – although the 12 million immigrants that passed through its doors between 1892 and 1924, had nothing on the billions attempting to board the ferry at Battery Park on that Public Holiday Sunday… if I hadn’t told the guard I must go and find my Italian grandson I’d lost in the main hall ninety years ago, I’d still be queuing now – I pass my gratitude on to the real life Peter Griffin.

New York is simply a completely unique experience. Would I choose to live there? No. But my God, the breakfasts could help persuade. The rest ain’t bad either. The intense buzz and activity infect you with the energy to cope with it and to appreciate all sides of town; both ends of Broadway. Be prepared to walk, walk and once you have had enough of walking, run a bit then walk some more. The subway is fine, but Christ, just walk those blocks, pound those streets; feel how Greenwich Village’s bars and coffeehouses were the home to the development of one of the most creative artistic periods in modern times, with the 50s Beat Generation and 60s&70s Folk music scene being shaped there – for back then in America, as is the case today, and as one of the block’s biggest exports once wrote, The Times They Are A-Changing.

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A Little Town of Bethlehem, PA

A bit of history. Billy Joel, one of my favourite song writers, paints a vivid picture. For those familiar with his song ‘Allentown’, you may recall the opening line:

“Well we’re living here in Allentown, And they’re closing all the factories down, Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time, filling out forms, standing in line…”

He is referring to the perseverance of Pennsylvania’s steel workers in the face of a declining American manufacturing industry and specifically the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. It eventually closed its doors in 1995, after 138 years in operation but was once the second largest steel producer in the US, the largest supplier for the Allied forces and one of the world’s largest shipbuilding companies, turning out more than a warship a day during WW2. It now stands deserted and silent. That noise has moved to China…

The Works was also the birthplace of the now universally used steel I-beam in civil engineering. Known as ‘The Bethlehem Beam’, it made it possible to build higher, stronger and cheaper… everywhere! It basically caused Dubai.

Now, all that remains is a sun-baked open boardwalk along the 500m long factory, which given the heat, must give some authenticity to past conditions inside.

On the other side of town, I was staying with a buddy at Lehigh University – a complete contrast to the eastside, where the effects of the unemployment from its industrial past are visible, this is a small college town with everything that comes with that – Bud Lite, astronomical fees, hot legally blonde lawyers (lacking, being a science campus), World Rankings dominance, really green lawns… onto Philly.

 

Streets of Philadelphia

America’s first capital – the birthplace of the nation. No city springs to mind which has so much historical significance in such a small area than Old Town Philly. The sidewalks are engrained with it. The Declaration of Independence in 1776 and then the US Constitution in 1788 were drafted and signed within Independence Hall, with its key founder Benjamin Franklin’s grave round the corner. It’s worth seeing it all; this was where the American Dream was dreamt and initally set into motion – for some reason it looks and feels remarkably recent.

But naturally, it isn’t that sort of culturally enriching arena which is what the city is now most famous for – Rocky’s training regime on a bitter winter’s morning takes that accolade. So it was definitely worth the 45 minute trek across town and up to the Museum of Art – a bloody huge moment! An AIDS-ridden lawyer, which earned Tom Hanks his first Oscar, also gave the city a further commercial limelight and together with Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia, spread AIDS awareness in the 90s to an even wider audience.

Springsteen’s songs derive from these parts. To have visited Asbury Park up the road in NJ, and Atlantic City, to see the places which lie behind arguably Rock’s greatest storyteller, would have been fascinating. But Philly itself is a cool and chilled out place, even in the heat. Regardless of what you hear in the UK, you won’t get shot, you won’t get in one little fight (avoid west Philly!) and your mum won’t get scared etc etc, it’s cool. The Philadelphia House hostel is the epitome of chilled-out, apart from one narcissistic Portuguese who had an excruciating verbal orgasm for about 5 minutes, screaming & holding the TV when Ronaldo scored in the Euro semi-final; great player, terrible team, crazy fans. I wasn’t hanging around – I had a 12 hour Amtrak to catch…

Charleston, SC

Any sort of mental budget I had went out the window on the train. As markets seemingly rallied in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, largely due to the depreciation of the pound, not only was I entering a fairly lucrative town, but I was doing so at the worst time in history to be a British tourist with the pound dropping to $1.28. I had accounted for this (putting £150 on Brexit at 3/1 helped), but was not expecting it to rival parts of London – the Air BnB I stayed in was £90/night and one of the better deals. House prices around the Waterfront Park frequently go for around $6-7m! Shots go for 6 bucks!

But it’s an attractive place. Originally called Charles Town, after King Charles II, it has been voted America’s friendliest and most hospitable city. Even though the train pulled in at 8pm, having gone through six states, by midnight I was in a Bluegrass rock show with a couple of local students. Bluegrass is a sort of roots country music, so I figured what could possibly go wrong – but it was exhilarating and attracts the young crowd.

Charleston is most renowned for being where the first shot of the Civil War was fired, on Fort Sumpter on 12th April 1861, when Confederate forces attacked the Union troops stationed there. Of course, one couldn’t not jump on a boat to go and see it – I even offered my seat to a doughnut ridden American woman…she refused…I said “fine but it’s the fort that counts!” That left her obese and bewildered – wish I took a pic.

The Civil war played a vital role in shaping Charleston. It was the most important port town in the South and so its habour played home to vicious battles, but it never fell into Union hands; they were not giving up their slaves without a fight – tobacco and cotton were just too economically valuable.

My final destination was Savannah, a 2-hour minibus ride through the ACE Basin and across the GA-SC State line. The heat ramped up and up and up…

Savannah, GA

Whilst not the easiest or most suitable place for young people to travel, Savannah is a wonderfully unique town. Consisting of twenty-two Squares, it is labelled as Georgia’s Charleston and America’s most haunted city. Having done the Sixth Sense ghost tour, the only spirit that made an appearance was the double whiskey in the hotel bar after, whilst I contemplated why on earth I bothered to spend $30 on a bloody ticket. Apparently below is the most haunted house in Savannah and possibly in the US:

I preferred it to Charleston – it is probably the most atmospheric place I have ever been… anywhere. History is everywhere; even my hotel was an old cotton factory. Forrest Gump was filmed on one square, Martin L King gave his first “I have a dream” speech on another, and it’s where Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was based and filmed. You can visit the Mercer-Williams house as well as others.

But there is humour in Savannah’s history. When the Yellow Fever epidemic struck just as the first forty-two Jewish settlers arrived in 1733, naturally it was the town’s doctor who was first to go; luckily there was a Jewish physician on board. Savannah also houses the oldest house in Savannah, from 1754… you simply can’t write it! Or shouldn’t write it…

With Tybee Island and the Atlantic Coast a 20 minute drive away, wonderful market streets and with a riverside boardwalk, it is the perfect location, even in 40 degrees. But it was walking through the Squares and Forsyth Park at night when you realise its other dimension and its uniquity – it is like time has stood still in Savannah.

New York really couldn’t seem further away.

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