NYE in NYC and the 'Polar Vortex'
Trip Start Dec 20, 2013
7Trip End Jan 09, 2014
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Where I stayed
We drove from Bethlehem, NH on Dec 27 and managed to arrive in NYC just in time to drop our car (amazingly undamaged after our long drive through snowy conditions and dense traffic as we approached the NYC area), check into our hotel and get the subway the 20 blocks or so from our hotel in Chelsea up to Radio City Music Hall for the 8pm show. We loved the Christmas Spectacular, tired as we were after our long drive from New Hampshire. The show was definitely all we had hoped for, and made for a special and memorable part of our 'White Christmas' themed trip! The next day we flew to Miami for four nights.
We had spent a week in NYC before, as part of our 11 week US trip in 2004. We enjoyed that visit and had been looking forward to returning at some stage. On this trip, the highlight of the New York leg was going to be attending a 'Ball Drop' party in Times Square for New Year's Eve.
On the plane from Miami I was reading about the recent drop in the rate of violent crime in NYC. Amazing how they've turned it around - for 2013 New York will likely have the fewest murders since records started being kept in 1963. There were 332 murders through December 29, down 20 percent from the 419 murders in 2012. I think at the peak back in the 80s they had something like 2 or 3 thousand murders per year. Now it probably would be no worse than Sydney, once you adjust for population. .
We arrived from Miami at about 3pm on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. We took the train and subway in from JFK to the city. So we get to the vicinity of our hotel about 4pm, each dragging a wheeled bag. Very difficult to get through the crowds (even at this relatively early hour) while dragging our bags.
We get to within maybe 500 metres of our hotel, then run into police roadblocks that have closed most of the cross streets. For those who know New York City, our hotel is on West 45th street, between 6th and 7th Avenues (the ‘streets’ run east-west and the ‘avenues’ north-south). The NYPD have placed barricades on all the cross streets between 6th and 8th Avenues. We are told you need to show confirmation of a hotel reservation in order to be allowed through the checkpoints. So we get through one checkpoint on 8th Avenue, but the next one on 7th won’t let us through. The cops tell us that only certain cross-streets are open all the way across, even if you can prove you have a legitimate reason to go there.
At this stage we are on 45th, the street our hotel is in. We are told we have to walk up to 53rd, go across to 6th Avenue then back down to 45th from the other side and from there to our hotel. Once we reach 53rd, the cops there tell us that only 38th is open (back the way we just came, then further south). By this point we are getting really frustrated as the cops seem to have no idea – each group you deal with gives us different instructions. And it’s freezing. And very crowded. And we’re hungry. Not exactly the greatest event organization we’ve ever seen, although the cops were unfailingly polite and did in some cases try to be helpful. A few complimented us on our accent. We’d started playing the ‘Aussie’ card a bit as that often seems to help in the US - "we’ve just come all the way from Australia", etc!
Eventually, after walking half the length of Manhattan, having had metal detectors run over us and having to open our bags several times right there in the street, we made it to our hotel. A few hours later, time to do it all again as we walk to the venue for our NYE party (only a few blocks - 8th and 40th). At least this time it went smoother – not having bags helped, of course. Still, we had to show our tickets for the party in order to cross the checkpoints. There must have been every single cop in New York on duty that night. Most just normal cops, but a few from the 'anti-terrorism' squad with assault rifles slung over their shoulders.
More long lines at the designated ‘entry point’ through the closed area, where the party organizers sort the ticket holders according to which venue they are going to. The crowd was very multicultural and of course included many members of cultures who don’t exactly have the Anglo concept of ‘form an orderly queue’! The cops doing what they can to stop these people from blatantly pushing into the line - at one point a NYPD officer called out "I saw what you did!" to a guy who was pushing into the line pretty openly.
So finally we get into the venue. We have our tickets but are not in their computer system. So how, we ask, did they print and issue the tickets to us less than a week earlier, only a few blocks away near Penn Station? Never explained, but a supervisor let us in anyway. We had definitely earned the right to enthusiastically partake from the open bar once we made it to the designated floor of the venue, access controlled by having the right color wristband.
The party itself was fun, with a guaranteed view of the balldrop from a (freezing) outdoor terrace. Plenty of nice drinks, food and music. Surprisingly large number of Aussies in attendance. We had a good night, met lots of interesting people of all kinds: black, white, Hispanic, European, straight, gay. Learned about Puerto Rico and the debate over whether to become a state of the USA, Costa Rica and the fact that Brazil and Argentina are apparently fierce rivals. Compared notes with the Aussies about their travel plans and impressions of the US. Also what it is like being gay in a conservative part of the USA like Kansas City, when many of your family members are evangelical Christians and strongly opposed to homosexuality.
Much easier walking back home, at least in terms of physical obstacles – no more barricades and everyone (including the cops) in good spirits and a friendly mood. I’m starting to think that Americans tend not to behave as badly as some Aussies do when they get on the drink – while we are in the US we continually see stories in the Australian media about young guys getting punched out and ending up in hospital or worse. That said, America may have less loutish behavior, but of course has far more serious problems with violence due to its almost unique ‘gun culture’ (not as much of an issue in NYC as in some other regions though). But that’s another topic for another time…
Would we do NYE in NYC again? No. Great to do it once, very glad we did, but we would not go through all that hassle again! Not that we realized it would be quite as much drama getting there as it turned out to be. If we ever do New Year's in the USA again, it would probably be somewhere like Vegas...
We stayed at the Room Mate Grace Hotel, on W.45th just near Times Square. By coincidence, the hotel was only a few doors down from the Big Apple Hostel where we stayed for a week on our last visit to New York. This meant we were quite familiar with the area, which is very conveniently located. The same delis we remembered from 2004 were still there, though most of the bars and restaurants seemed to be new.
We were very happy with Room Mate Grace - if you are interested, you can read our review on Tripadvisor.
After recovering from New Year's Eve, we did the usual tourist things such as exploring Central Park. We had never been in NYC in the winter until now, and there had been enough snow for Central Park to have a 'winter wonderland' feel to it.
We visited the 9/11 site where the new 'Freedom Tower' (1776 feet tall, on the site of the World Trade Center) is almost completed. Also walked around Wall St and the financial district.
We like to walk in the cities we visit, and we definitely wore out some shoe leather in NYC. This time we tried to visit landmarks we had missed our last trip, such as Grand Central Station, Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.
As with the Chicago leg of the trip, we also enjoyed the nice winter things they do so well in North America, such as outdoor ice-skating in Bryant Park which was very near our hotel. It's nicely set up for the holidays, with lots of little stalls and places to get a warm drink or a great variety of food.
We had been keen to see the other boroughs apart from Manhattan. Other than a visit to the Bronx Zoo last time, we had not really seen anywhere other than Manhattan. We bought a 'hop on/hop off' ticket with Gray Line which has various routes over to Brooklyn and elsewhere. The guide was funny and informative but unfortunately due to the weather we were not allowed to get out and walk around in the places they normally stop in Brooklyn. Also the plexiglass roof of the bus was dirty from snow and ice, and pretty badly scratched. This meant we could not get a decent view or take photos from the top deck. A bit disappointing. We had hoped to get off and walk back to lower Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge, but again that was not possible due to the weather.
Towards the end of our stay in New York, we experienced the 'Polar Vortex'. This weather phenomenon occurs when a cold band of air that normally circulates up near the Arctic temporarily dips down into the more southerly latitudes such as the NYC or Boston area. We were a little anxious what the Polar Vortex would bring, and followed the story closely on Fox-5 when were home at night. In the end, the city got about 6 inches of snow and it was not all that disruptive. However parts of Long Island had road closures and the schools were also closed in some areas. We have nothing like this in Australia, and even the terminology used on the weather reports is unfamiliar to us.
We have a new mayor here in NYC. Bill di Blasio, sworn in on the stroke of midnight (by Bill Clinton, no less!) as Jan 1 began. The new mayor has assured us that the city has over 300 snowplows, fuelled up and ready to go. Also that tons of salt are on hand to be used to melt snow and ice on roads and sidewalks. Apparently the last blizzard wasn't handled too well, and this is seen as a crucial test of the new administration.
During the Polar Vortex it was much colder in NYC than normal for this time of year. About -15C in the Celsius system we use back home. That's about 5 degrees in the old Fahrenheit system still used in the USA. Although they use salt to melt the snow and ice from roads and sidewalks, these conditions make it very slippery and you need to be careful walking around. It made us wonder how older, frail people manage in the winter months here. Maybe they just get cabs everywhere, or move to Florida...
We were a bit worried that our flight to Honolulu a few days later might be cancelled due to the weather. A lot of flights had been cancelled, especially with the discount airline 'JetBlue'. There were reports on the news of hundreds of angry JetBlue passenger stuck at JFK after their flights were cancelled. Apparently the police had to be called to keep an eye on things at one point.
My wife and I had always wanted to visit a black gospel church. We joined a bus tour on Sunday morning, which took us from the Times Square area, through Harlem, on the way to the Green Pasture Baptist Church in the 'Soundview' district of the Bronx. On the way we stopped off at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in the Washington Heights area, which has historical significance as George Washington's headquarters for a time during the Revolutionary War. We were also shown some of the highlights of the 'Sugar Hill' area of Harlem.
The church service was a very different style of worship from what I'd grown up with in the Catholic churches of suburban Sydney. Lots of exuberant singing, dancing, music and preaching. It was a very nice and uplifting experience, regardless of one's religious beliefs. They did a roll-call of the nationalities represented in our tour group, and we were surprised to find that Aussies were easily the largest contingent - perhaps a majority of the group.
Our last activity was to walk the famous 'Highline', which used to be a derelict freight railway until it was renovated and restored into its current form a few years back. It's a great addition to the city, and must be very nice in the warmer months. For our visit the weather was cold, drizzly, miserable and probably didn't show the Highline at its best. There were not many people walking around, and most cafes or food stands etc were closed.
Although the weather prevented us from doing and seeing as much as we had hoped, we had a great time in New York, and I'm sure we'll return at some point. I guess we cannot complain about the weather, since we deliberately chose to come to the Northeast of the USA at the coldest time of the year: we got what we were looking for - a real American winter experience!
This morning we will fly across the entire width of this sprawling country, from the Northeast region where European settlement first started about 400 years ago, across the snowy Midwest, over the Prairies, the Rocky Mountains and the coastline of California. Then a further 5 hours over the Pacific until we reach sunny Hawaii, where America's long westward expansion finally reached its end. We have window seats and will look forward (weather permitting) to seeing it all unfold below us...
Some Random Observations:
Another of those little things we notice that are different than at home - the restaurants here look so inviting as we walk by on a cold evening. They are generally dimly lit inside which creates a warm and romantic ambiance, especially in this climate. We keep wondering why it is that restaurants at home seem to be practically floodlit inside? OK, maybe not the 'fine dining' ones, but definitely the more modest suburban places we tend to go to. Do Aussies actually prefer it that way? We certainly don't. Admittedly there is a downside - you might need to pull your phone out to help read the menu!
While we're on the topic, I still can't understand how the Americans can possibly use the word 'entree' to refer to the 'main course'. Even if you did not know a word of French, surely the meaning of the word itself in English would clearly suggest that it should refer to the 'starter' or 'appetizer'?...No problem - we're used to it now!
I'd be very interested to know why there are often bags of garbage lined up along the sidewalks in NYC. Yes I know it is a very old city and probably wasn't designed for cars and trucks like the more modern cities we are used to. I guess they also don't have the small laneways parallel to the major streets that we see in some places. Still, we didn't constantly see bags of garbage in the other major US cities we visited such as Chicago. Not a particularly attractive aspect of the city, though while we were there the visual impact of massed garbage bags was often softened a little by a light dusting of snow!