Ten Things I ♥ about NYC

I grew up in New England. New York City, with all its bustling excitement, was about three hours away. We took several school fieldtrips there. My family would also visit my grandfather—a retired professor at Columbia, who still lived a few steps from that venerable institution.

Twelve years ago this week, the unthinkable happened in the city I love to visit. It hurts to watch destruction and carnage anywhere, but this was particularly painful because it was a place I had visited (I had been to the top of the World several times), so I could imagine everything as it happened. The terrible loss of life and emotions of that day and those following will be forever writ on my heart and that of everyone who experienced that awful day. Yesterday, the anniversary of that horrible day, there were plenty of memorials to those tragic events. But I don’t want to revisit that in this blog. I want to celebrate New York City and what I love about it—then and now.

1. Theatre. I have vivid memories of seeing shows with my school and my family. We saw plays, we saw musicals, and we saw ballet. I can still recall the thrill and awe of the 40-foot Christmas tree rising from below the state at Lincoln Center during George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. It was one of my first theater-going experiences and the pageantry thrilled my seven-year-old heart. How did they get that huge tree to grow in the theatre? It was magic. It still is.

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2. Museums. Fieldtrips are supposed to be educational. Our school day in New York usually included the American Museum of Natural History or the New York Hall of Science. In part, my lifelong love affair with history and knowledge began in NYC: the life-sized blue whale that hung over one of the exhibit halls, the dioramas of Native Americans, the bones of dinosaurs that once wandered the valley where I lived—millions of years separating our existence. All of this and more is on display. New York allowed me to explore King Tut’s tomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and modern art at the Guggenheim. Heaven for the girl who would go on to write the blog Curiosity Seldom Pays. (Although I will confess to feeling that I could easily replicate some of the modern art—a canvas that is entirely red? Who can’t do that?)

3. Standing in history’s shadow. New York was the nation’s first capitol. George Washington was inaugurated on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1789. You can stand where he stood, and I have! If you’re a history buff, you can totally get your geek on just walking down the street in Manhattan—from the architecturally significant buildings to the ethnic neighborhoods that tell the story of the American immigrant to the literary pilgrimage spots. New York has history in spades.

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4. The Empire State Building. One of those architecturally significant buildings was completed in 1931, and for 40 years the art deco building was the world’s tallest at 102 stories (1250 feet, not including the spire antenna). With observation decks on both the 86th and 102nd floors, you can see all of New York City laid out below you, and on a really clear day, you can see almost 80 miles in every direction—giving you a glimpse of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as well. History, architecture, and a really great view. What more could you ask?

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5. The Staten Island Ferry. It’s free! In a city where it costs $8.50 to get a small soda (okay, slight exaggeration), free is a miracle. Save your money and skip a harbor cruise; be a real New Yorker and try the ferry. The Staten Island Ferry makes over 100 trips a day during the work week (and around 70 a day on the weekends). The five mile, 25-minute (each way) trip offers a respite from the jostling crowds and some of the best views in New York: the famed New York Skyline, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty.

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6. Ellis Island. A recent addition to my New York favorites, we took the kids a couple of years ago. We were on what I like to call the Great AP US History (APUSH) Tour of the East Coast. I could easily imagine the nervous immigrants treading the stairs in the Great Hall. Some of my ancestors came through the earlier immigration station, Castle Garden, but I guess the feelings and emotions were the same. Freedom. A chance for a better life. The welcome of Lady Liberty’s raised lamp (Ellis Island opened in 1892, and the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886.), which offer the promise of light and hope for the future, is still a powerful symbol today. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is an excellent chance to recall where we came from and to reflect on where we want to go.

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7. The food. When I was a kid, I loved it when my parents would buy us pretzels from the food carts. I grew up in a street-vendorless college town, so buying food off the street was an exotic experience. Then there were the restaurants: My first glass of red wine was in an Italian restaurant in Little Italy, which was also as my introduction to the antipasto platter. There was prosciutto and unusual cheeses from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, which was my grandfather’s favorite; the smell of coffee from Chock Full O Nuts, where my dad liked to grab a cup of coffee and a snack; there were deli’s with stacks of meat on fresh rye bread—like at the Second Avenue Deli (which is no longer on Second Avenue!) where we took the kids on the Great APUSH Tour—and there was the fabulous New York pizza. (Note to the so-called NY-style pizza place locally: you’re doing it wrong.) So much good food and so many great memories of sharing it with family and friends!

8. The rhythm of New York. People moved quicker. They talked quicker. They seemed to live quicker. The pace of the town I grew up in was sleepy, so it was eye-opening—and exhilarating—to adjust to the pace of New York. As it turns out, I’m more of a college-town girl, but I still enjoy the periodic foray into an urban playground.

9. The subway. The subway is an awesome tool for an aspiring writer. There are hundreds of people riding with you. Where are they going? What are their stories? Are they happy or sad? Tourist or native? Worker bee or boss? How do they talk, interact, live? The possibilities are endless, the stories infinite. Oh, and it’s also pretty dang fun to practice subway surfing. Look, Ma! No hands!

10. Everything else. It’s impossible to list only ten great things about New York—the resilient people, the fabulous Central Park, the skating at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas decorations, the movie locations, the collective knowledge of the universities, the parades, .… I’m so glad to have some small ties to this iconic city. Rock on New York. I’m delighted you’re there.

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Text ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photos ©Rebecca Bigelow and Ian Brooks

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Road Pictures: Tinley Park and Naperville, Illinois

Being a good mom, I recently drove the twins and one of their friends to Tinley Park. They were headed to the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre for the Warped Tour—an all day punk rock festival. To me the idea of spending 10 hours listening to punk bands brought this to mind:

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And made me want to do this:

Cover ears

But the kids were excited to go, and luckily they are old enough to just drop off. This was excellent news for my eardrums, but I needed something in the vicinity to do for 10 hours. Fortunately, a friend of mine, Terri, was available to keep me company, and we were able to make our own fun that didn’t involve this (which I am pretty sure is expressly forbidden in my insurance policy):

Warped mosh

Once we turned the kids loose, our first stop was just a few miles away from the Amphitheatre at the Tinley Park Farmers’ Market (TPFM). We live in downstate Illinois, where there is much more farmland. (Helpful hint: when driving through central Illinois, if the crop is tall, it’s corn; if it is short, it’s soy beans.) Farmers’ market is probably a misnomer in Tinley Park. The TPFM is probably a quarter of the size of our local one, and the most obvious difference is that there were only two or three booths (as opposed to two or three rows of booths) selling actually local produce. Intriguingly, however, one of the TPFM produce stands was selling bananas. The booth was doing brisk business, and I didn’t want to interrupt to ask how they managed to grow bananas locally, so sadly this remains an unsolved mystery.

Despite the decided lack of farmers, the TPFM did have several booths selling food items. The best sign goes to the cheese booth: Caseum Diem (Cheese the Day). I would have bought cheese there just because the sign was clever, but it would have spoiled in the hot car before we returned home. I resisted flavored olive oil, dubious foodstuff on a stick, and assorted jams and jellies. I did end up buying a caramel apple coffee cake ($10). The booth was serving samples, which were delicious. Veni. Gustaverim. Emi. (I came. I tasted. I bought!) Other booths were filled with things we could live without (e.g., fleece blankets, which were probably not the best thing to sell in 90 degree heat, or necklaces of teen pop stars made out of bottle caps) and some beautifully made items that were more than I wanted to spend that day (e.g., painted gourd planters or a lovely oak pie cupboard with punched tin panels). But it was fun to look, and we spent an hour poking around. There was even some entertainment in the form of a violinist (who seemed to be raking in the money) and half of the winning team from the most recent Virginia Beach Sand Castle Championships. He was making palm trees from a sand block for a Caribbean-themed street party that was to be held the next day.

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After we had exhausted the TPFM options, we walked a few blocks of Oak Park Avenue because they had benches decorated in children’s book themes: fairy tales and classics like Where the Wild Things Are. They were very cute. (Apparently the bench theme changes each year.)

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You’re freaking me out, Grandma.

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This is why moms say “No sweets before dinner!”

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I thought the cow was supposed to be milky white.

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Let the wild rumpus start!

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Notice the shot put-sized pea.

After admiring the benches, we departed Tinley Park for Naperville. Parking in both towns turned out to be free, and in Naperville, it was plentiful. We found a spot in the second lot we tried. The first order of business was lunch and we chose a bar and grill that seemed to be doing booming trade: Jimmy’s Grill. Terri had fish tacos and I had a burger and fries. We both thought the food was tasty. They charged extra for cheese and mushrooms (making my $9 burger a $10 burger), but soft drinks were a reasonable $2. Terri’s fish tacos were $11 or $12. Having an OCD-fueled germ phobia, I thought the place could have been a tad cleaner (table and seats were not wiped well; there was no changing table in the restroom, so another patron was changing her son’s diaper on the sink), but overall, it was a decent meal at a reasonable price.

Driving into Naperville, we had noticed a little river walk. After lunch, we strolled over to the park entrance. That part of the walk went through woods, so it was shady (welcome on a hot day) and followed a winding brick path along the river. It was lovely. The Morton Arboretum had placed information plaques by some of the trees, and there were benches dotted along the way. On the opposite shore you could see the stadium of North Central College. We also spotted a chipmunk, several ducks and their babies . . .

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.  . . and this guy, who was just hanging out on a downed tree.

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We walked the whole length of that part of the river walk (about 1.2 miles roundtrip) and then headed into town to explore the various shops. We sniffed all the spice sample jars in a spice shop, and Terri ended up buying some Chili 9000 (staff assured us that was not the temperature of your tongue after ingesting said Chili 9000.), which blended chili, cocoa, cinnamon, and other spices. We next tried samples in a gourmet popcorn store, and we each bought a small bag for $5—hers was plain salted, mine was kettle corn. Of course the small bag there was the size of a large bag at the movie theatre. Then we crossed the street and browsed a Barnes and Noble bookstore. After that, we stopped at Potbelly’s to get a soft drink and sit for a bit (less than $2 per drink) before purusing a few more shops along that main street, including some resale stores (one describing itself as upscale sold old designer shoes for outrageous prices—a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s shoes, for example, that were dirty and well-worn were still being sold for $100! Me: Why?), a board game store, and more.

Then we walked a different part of the river walk, heading the opposite way. This part had a concrete path along the river and a wider brick path up at street level. There was less shade here, but it was still fun to people watch, admire assorted art and fountains (including the aptly named Dandelion Fountain) and crisscross the river on the various bridges (covered bridges for pedestrians only or regular street bridges. Naperville’s vibrant downtown had more shops and restaurants than we could explore, the river walk was an unexpected delight, and there is even a historic area that we didn’t investigate because it was closed for an Ale Fest the day we were there.

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As the day turned to evening, we headed back to Tinley Park,** topping up the gas tank in Naperville because it was about 16 cents a gallon cheaper than Tinley Park (although both cities had considerably higher gas prices—over $4 a gallon—than central Illinois). We had a quick dinner at an Arby’s in Tinley Park and arrived at the amphitheatre before the last set. We walked around a bit outside the venue. There was music in the parking lot, which was competing with the noise music inside. Inside there were several stages and the sound bled between them. Fingernails on the chalkboard to me, but the kids came out happy and hungry (a vegan, a vegetarian, and a frugal teen did not do well with the venue fare), so we took them over to Subway to get reasonably priced food before driving home.

The adventures were successful all the way around; although I still think Terri and I had the better day. We’re already planning a return trip to Naperville with another friend in the fall. There are tons more shops to check out, and the river walk should be lovely when the leaves turn.

Photo 1: National Archives (public domain)
Photo 2: Noisy Whistler; Nathan Jones, Flikr
Photo 3: Warped 2010; Ted Van Pelt, Flikr
Text and all other photos ©: Rebecca Bigelow

**We drove to Naperville with the GPS set to “Avoid Toll Roads.” We drove back on the toll roads. The former route was picturesque, but took longer. The latter was shorter, but cost us about $7! Highway robbery and/or reason to buy an I-pass?

Tinley Park by the numbers:

Incorporated: 1892

Population: 56,703

Capacity of the Amphitheatre: 28,000

Weird Claim to Fame: Tinley Park Lights UFO sightings in 2004, 2005, and 2006

Naperville by the numbers:

Settled: 1831; incorporated as a city: 1890

Population: 141,857

Naperville’s Smartest Decision: Keeping parking free—a choice made in the 1970s so the downtown area could compete with shopping malls that were opening in the surrounding area. It clearly worked.

Life Is a Highway

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I took my kids on a college visit last week. As we drove down the highway, I began wondering about the interstate system. I knew that the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at a spike-driving ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah. (Although the railroad would not be a continuous line until 1870 because in 1869 passengers still had to complete one small portion of the journey by stage coach, but I digress!) Nevertheless, by the late 1800s, people could crisscross the country by train, but the train’s heyday was short-lived. The American love affair with the automobile also began around the turn of the century, and the people needed roads to drive on. So when was the first transcontinental interstate completed and where did the construction crews drive the proverbial golden spike for the interstate?

Get Your Kicks

Route 66 (The Mother Road) was one of the original US highways (work completed in 1926), but it only meandered from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California. The Lincoln Highway actually was a transcontinental road, and it will celebrate its 100th birthday in October 2013. A motorist could leave New York City, drive over 3,000 miles along its route, and arrive in San Francisco. One traveler did make such a trip in 1919. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a lieutenant colonel in the army, joined the first Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy. It was supposed to be a reliability test of the road and the army’s vehicles. Eisenhower noted that “Delays sadly were to be the order of the day.” At times the convoy rolled along at less than six miles per hour, equipment broke down, road conditions were in turns dusty or muddy, and many of the bridges were in poor condition, collapsing under the weight of the convoy. The trip took sixty-two days. Eisenhower would later compare that trip to his experiences in World War II Germany, where he witnessed the Nazis (and later the Allies) easily moving troops along the more modern Autobahn.

King of the Road

Convinced that a modern highway system was need for national defense, postwar President Eisenhower championed the law that would create the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Of course other presidents, notably Franklin Roosevelt, had studied the idea as well, but Eisenhower helped figure out how to finance the project, by using Federal gas taxes and other similar sources of revenue to create the funds needed to actually pay for the US government’s share of the construction costs. The act also set national standards for the road construction, including width of lanes (12 feet) and shoulders (10 feet).

Hit the Road Jack   

So once there was funding, where was the first road built? There are actually three states that make a claim: Missouri was the first to sign contracts ordering work under the new act, and a section of what is now I-70 in St. Charles County was the first to receive the Federal funds.  Kansas, on the other hand, was the first to complete a road (also a section of I-70) with the Federal money (although construction had already started when they received the funding). Pennsylvania, however, claims that their turnpike was the first interstate because a large section of it opened in 1940, well before the 1956 act!

So, which state was first is a matter of interpretation. What about completion? Surprisingly, the first transcontinental east-west interstate was not completed until August 1986—thirty years after Eisenhower signed the act! This was Interstate 80, and fittingly, I-80 was also completed in Utah, but this time near Salt Lake City. Winding from New York City to San Francisco, the odometer of a car making this trek would clock just over 2,900 miles—making I-80, at the time of completion, the world’s longest completed freeway. The completion of I-10, I-90, and I-70 would follow, although critics argue I-70 is still not complete as it is missing exchanges.

The Long and Winding Road

You may have noticed that all of these even-numbered roads run east-west. What about the north-south interstates? These odd-numbered interstates include I-95, the major East Coast north-south route, which is the interstate that traverses the most states (sixteen). Despite that feat, I-95 isn’t scheduled to be complete until at least 2018, as there is a nine-mile gap between Pennsylvania and New Jersey! There is another interstate oddity to mention: Hawaii has three interstates (H-1, H-2, and H-3) all on the island of Oahu. If the roads aren’t even inter-island, how can they be interstates? They get the designation because they were completed with interstate funds.

In all, more than 47,000 miles of roadway make up the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highway today. I think Eisenhower would be pleased to note an east-west cross-country journey can now be completed in less than fifty hours. Road trip, anyone?

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow; Photo: Wikimedia Commons
 

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