New York — More Than Just a Concrete Jungle

First time writing a travel essay! Took a trip to New York a year ago, and I immediately fell in love with the vibrancy and energy the whole city radiated. All photos below are taken by me!

As I was sitting in the Uber, I desperately tried battling my grogginess, yet I was fixated on the looming, conglomeration of tall skyscrapers I saw from a distance. It was the first sight I saw of the concrete jungle known as New York City. Since my family and I were on a budgeted trip, the best option was to get an airbnb near but not in the vicinity of New York, so we opted for New Jersey. Staying in a rented apartment instead of a hotel made it easier for us to feel more at home — we did our own groceries, fixed the beds, and did our own laundry. In New Jersey, we didn’t exactly feel like tourists. The apartment we stayed in was lined up alongside identical houses that had their doors on top of stairs. Each street had a shade provided by towering trees and a carpet of fallen leaves as it was still Autumn. Our parents and relatives, exhausted from traveling, decided to call it a night after we had dinner but my siblings and I were eager to explore the nightlife in New York.

We headed towards Grove station and as we descended down the stairs, the air around me became warm and stuffy. The platform was dimly lit with a low ceiling and the area packed with waiting passengers was surprisingly quiet if not for the sound of screeching brakes and announcements from the conductor. The moment we arrived at the World Trade Center, the platform was visibly cleaner and much more modern looking with brighter lights. Entering the station was surreal, everything was pristine and every corner was crisp white. As we ascended the stairs, I was in awe. I realized that we were in the Oculus, a 3.9 billion dollar project by the US. The ceiling was definitely the most magnificent asset of the whole structure because of its height and intricate vertical columns that interwoven into a triangular shaped roof. From the outside, the structure of the Oculus resembled a dove, and I found out that it symbolized hope as the foundation of which is stood upon was the old PATH train wrecked by the tragic events of 9/11. The nightlife in New York City was as expected — lively, quite smelly, and overwhelming. It was late at night already and everyone was still rushing to get to places. There were a few dark alleyways which my siblings and I steered away from since we felt unsafe. New York City is known for crime — especially robbery and shootings. At every corner, there were delicious novelty food shops but all were quite pricey, so we settled for a cheap take out pizza place and headed home.

“It’s already 9 AM, wake up!” shouted my dad, as he was already done eating breakfast and eager to start sightseeing.

Still battling jet lag, my siblings and I ignored it and still continued to sleep but as soon as we heard the adults mention Central Park, we stood up immediately and excitedly yet sleepily got ready. A fresh cream cheese salmon bagel was waiting for us on the breakfast table and we all took a bite since we wanted to save our appetite for the delicious New Yorker food we would be encountering later on in the day. The train ride to Central Park was a quick one but there were many exchanges on the way, and I kept stalling my whole family to wait for me as I was excitedly taking pictures of every single thing that fascinated me — falafel stands, hot dog vendors, and even street signs! Everyone in my family was starting to lose patience with me except for my sister since all of them have already gone to New York already, but my sister and I were seeing things fresh for the first time.

“Stop taking photos of random things, Fel. Seriously, can’t you wait until we’re in Central Park already? Or in Brooklyn? There’s a lot of good places to take photos there. Take your time when you’re there. Let’s hurry to Central Park already,” scolded my brother.

I did end up hurrying as I also wanted to see Central Park but I also explained to him that for me, the journey to a tourist destination is just as thrilling for me as being in the destination itself. It was the first time I was experiencing the whole buzz of being at the center of the street, snapping photos of everything I wanted to remember, while everyone around me was rushing to places. Though everything around me was quite fast paced and energetic, I just focused on directing my camera towards ordinary New Yorker things I wanted to remember.

Finally, after a few shots and a 30 minute walk, we arrived at Central Park — the biggest green space in the urban jungle of Manhattan. Coming from the commercial area of NYC then suddenly seeing a break from all the buildings was a refreshing sight. The greenery was juxtaposed with the concrete conglomerations, and walking across the bridge to the park felt like entering an entirely different city. Trees shrouded over me, and while I was walking deeper into the park, the buzz of ambulances, angry taxi drivers, rushing passerbys, and noisy tourists faded in the background as I was enveloped by the calmness of being surrounded by nature. Most people visit New York to feel the thrill of being in the busiest place in the world, and while that is an experience in itself, I valued more the beauty of feeling calm and alive all at once. Being in Central Park enabled me to feel that way. I sat on one of the black steel benches and just took in the scene before me. Passing me were people jogging and people walking their dogs. As mundane as those tasks were, I couldn’t help feeling envious that they had the opportunity to do it all in such a place that thousands only dream of visiting, and yet I was also grateful I was able to experience even just a bit of it. I was only a few hectares into the 843 acre land of the park, and as much as I wanted to explore deeper, time and scheduling would not permit me to. I stood up from the bench and made a promise to myself that I would go back one day.

Late afternoon came, and the event I was looking forward to the most in the whole trip was fast approaching. I would finally be able to watch Dear Evan Hansen, my favorite Broadway musical! Since we were already running late, my mom, sister, and I hailed a cab to get to 45th street on Broadway. A yellow taxi cab came to a halt and we stepped inside. The cab driver quickly navigated his way through the hustle and bustle of New York traffic. The whole cab ride went on smoothly until a commotion happened when there was a one minute delay in traffic when a car made a wrong turn. Suddenly, drivers rolled down their windows and started shouting profanities. I was quite shocked with how impatient everyone there was. I realized that being at the center of such a lively and busy city had its downside — people were so impatient all the time.

On the cab ride on the way to Times Square (Broadway is one of the streets in Times Square), I was just sitting and looking through the photos I took that day. When I looked out the window, I realized it was golden hour. As much as I wanted to take photos of what I saw, the taxi was way too fast for me to get a still shot. So I put my phone away and had my head pressed to the window like a child eager to get the most of everything. Every alleyway we passed had towering buildings, and the golden sun shone on the glassy surfaces of skyscrapers making the scene before me look like a canvas of glittering gold buildings. It was in that moment when I truly felt like a main character in a New York set movie. It was approaching sundown and the golden skies turned into a shade of deep blue.

Nearing Times Square, also known as the heart of Manhattan, I pictured it to be a huge avenue lined up with billboards, flashing lights, and packed people. When we arrived there, it was indeed filled with tourists and locals, flashing lights, numerous high end shops, and yet it wasn’t as big as I imagined it to be. Standing in the middle of rushing crowds, I looked up and saw the towering billboards and a spectrum of colors coming from huge screens displaying artists, celebrities, and ads of the most famous brands. I was one among the thousands of people in that square, and at that moment, I felt so small. That moment left as quick as it came and we rushed away from the crowd and hurried to Broadway. I felt immediately transported to the movie set of Moulin Rouge, the streets were narrow and everywhere you looked were theatres showing different musicals. So much talent was enclosed in those walls of the theatres and I was so lucky to have been able to witness it for myself. As the lights dimmed and the first note was belted by the talented Andrew Barth Feldman, the actor who portrayed Evan Hansen, I was immediately captivated and it was an experience I will never forget.

The festivities of the first few trips finally took a toll on us as fatigue catched up on everyone on the trip. It was past 10 AM and we couldn’t go quite far. We opted to walk around the neighborhood, and although we walked the same path for the past 5 days, it was as though I was noticing things for the first time. The buildings were in the shades of brown and dark red. The colors were quite drab, not suited for the energetic vibe of New Jersey but each corner was colored with wall art. Interesting drawings filled the blank walls, such as faces of prominent people and vibrant shapes and structures. The most memorable one I saw was of huge multicolored waves plastered on a building near the crossroads to Grove station. These subtle details add so much life to a city. Wall art or any art in particular says so much about a place’s culture, and it brightens up any gloomy day. When I searched up about the city of New Jersey, there was no mention of its wall art. I guess for locals it’s an ordinary sight, but for someone witnessing it for the first time, it’s something worth remembering.

Our flight the next day would be at 1 AM. For a city so big and limited time, 10 days was not enough, yet I felt content with the pace at which I explored New York. There was so much more to see, yet I knew if I rushed the places I was in, it would take away more from the moment I spent there. Being fully present in the moment — aware of all the area’s quirks and its uniqueness, is way more fulfilling than going to many places yet only stopping for photos or for the purpose of saying that you’ve been there. It was approaching 11 o’clock at night, and the airbnb was cleaned and emptied. We called for an Uber and proceeded to JFK. I put on my earphones and played New York, New York by Frank Sinatra. It was the perfect tune to listen to as I was passing by all the streets I knew I wouldn’t see for a long long time. A bittersweet feeling overcame me as I had so many new memories to look back on yet I wasn’t quite ready to leave the city that made you feel so small yet so alive at the same time. We passed a bridge on the way to the airport, and on that bridge, was the full length view of the New York City skyline. I quickly woke up my family who was asleep in the car,

“You guys have to see this. Look at how beautiful and huge New York is, I can’t believe it’s actually that big!” I said.

Everyone was fixated on the skyline, and we all just sat there stunned in silence. I remember myself walking along those avenues, and feeling enveloped by the towering buildings and crowded areas yet coming from an outside perspective somehow made me realize how much bigger New York really is. Thousands of glittering lights and a conglomeration of buildings and skyscrapers lit up the dark night and I finally saw the concrete jungle in its purest form. I sat quietly in the car in wide-eyed wonder, not quite believing that just a few hours ago I was at the center of the busiest place on earth, and now here I sat as the enormous city of New York slowly became a distancing speck of light in the dark.

A place for the thoughts I occasionally make some time for. (felicia.singson@gmail.com)