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Visions of New York City

(US DVD: 29 Jun 2010)

Okay, folks..how many of you have never flown in a copter before?


No one? Well, that makes you and the pilot, also!


Just kidding. But seriously, you’re in for a treat. Sit back and enjoy a prime aerial view of the Big Apple.


Chugging just below us is the legendary Staten Island Ferry, which is completely free and runs 24 hours a day, ferrying passengers and their automobiles between Manhattan and our least-talked about borough Staten Island, once known as Richmond. You may be aware that some of the cast members of “Jersey Shore” hail from S.I., but let’s keep that hush-hush.


We’ll have Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too…remember that old chestnut?


Anyhow, New York was already the largest American city by 1820, and although it wasn’t the birthplace of the skyscraper, it would quickly boast the densest concentration of such buildings in the world. The so-called skyscraper was enabled by the invention of the elevator by one Elisha Otis, who debuted it right here in 1857. An early – and iconic – skyscraper was the Flatiron Building, that wedge-like concrete sliver directly below us. At 285 feet, it wowed the populace when it opened in 1902. Nearby is the gleaming Art Deco-inspired Chrysler Building, a monument to the faded glories of Detroit and the first structure to utilize decorative metal for its surface.


The blue-and- white vessel below is a New York Waterways boat, a service begun in the late 1980s to make water travel, on both the Hudson and East rivers, easier for New Yorkers and the myriad visitors we host each year. It’s passing by South Street Seaport, a popular hangout for locals and tourists which also appeared during the city’s boom years of the ‘80s.


It’s no secret that New York is a city of bridges, nineteen in fact, connecting the outer boroughs and New Jersey with the financial hub of Manhattan. Perhaps the most renowned – standing majestically right over there – is the Brooklyn Bridge, the longest span in the world when it opened in 1883, and the oldest of the city’s grand suspension roadways. You may recall the short-lived 90s television sitcom of the same name.


New York was once the primary Stateside port for the great transatlantic liners, massive ships like the Queen Mary, the Normandie, and the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic, which transported vacationers to such far-flung European ports as Southampton, Le Havre, Genoa, and Bremen, then, prior to 1924, brought immigrant peasants to America, said service being the shipping lines’ bread-and-butter. There were literally hundreds of piers catering to this trade, before the passenger jet eliminated maritime passenger traffic on the pond in the 1960s and 70s. Nowadays, a smattering of cruise ships, bulky behemoths compared with the graceful liners of old, still tie up here, and I remember fondly my own journey on the late Queen Elizabeth 2 when I was nineteen, a brief cruise to nowhere that only left you wanting more.


To the delight of many of you, our next segment will be conducted via double-decker bus, to gain a close-up view of important structures on the island. To your left, that dignified brick edifice is Fraunces Tavern, perhaps the oldest existing structure in New York. A seminal piece of American history, it served as a covert meeting spot for George Washington and his revolution-minded cronies as they plotted the ousting of King George’s tax-happy Empire.


If this next thoroughfare seems familiar, you may recognize it as Wall Street, for better or worse – some would say worse – the nation’s financial nerve center. And yes, there once stood an actual wall along this route, intended by New Amsterdam’s Dutch barons to keep the English out, which they ultimately failed to do.


Up ahead is the storied Rockefeller Center, best known for its outdoor skating rink and the tony Rainbow Room restaurant. The building was commissioned by John J. Rockefeller, a scion of the vast Standard Oil fortune.


As we move onto Central Park West, you’ll notice the American Museum of Natural History, the largest and most celebrated repository of natural history in the United States. If you’re planning a visit, and have limited time or energy, you’d better engage in a process of elimination, ‘cause there ain’t enough hours in the day to see it all! Don’t miss the full-scale mock-up of a blue whale in the Marine Mammals exhibit. During my schoolboy days on Long Island, I made numerous trips to the museum, and for some reason was captivated by the Bison diorama in the North American Mammals Hall.


Also adjacent to Frederick Law Olmstead’s lush greensward is the Dakota Apartments, a French Norman building which has been a redoubt for celebrities for decades, and, sadly, the place of John Lennon’s shocking murder. The building’s exterior was used extensively in Roman Polanski’s creepy thriller Rosemary’s Baby.


Ah…the New York Public Library’s main branch looms ahead, but even locals can’t expect to check out the latest John Grisham or James Patterson thriller, as it’s strictly a research center, and books do not circulate. Outside, standing guard, are Patience and Fortitude, the library lions, as well known to New Yorkers as MGM’s Leo, and I like to think that their names are a commentary on reading War and Peace. Director Sidney Lumet had hoped to animate one of them for The Wiz, but the FX technology of the time was unsatisfactory.


To our right is the fabled Gateway Arch, the Big Apple’s very own Arc de Triomphe, and a portal between posh Manhattan and its scruffier bohemian ‘hoods – yes, they do still exist.


Coming up next is Madison Square Garden, actually the third incarnation of that famous sports and music venue, and my most vivid memory is seeing Prince do a show here in the summer of ’86.


Nearby we have the Chelsea Piers Driving Range, a focal point of the long-established Chelsea district. The Chelsea Piers, long moribund as outlets for cargo shipping, became infamous in the ‘70s as a nocturnal playground for newly-liberated gay men, and the name “Chelsea Piers” still retains a unique significance for gay New Yorkers of a certain age.


We now pass into the genteel Upper East Side, haven for blue-blooded Old Money, and often restrictive to those eager to crash their gilt-edged party. To our right is the elegant Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, site of my mother’s high-school prom. Of course, that’s the only important event ever to occur there.


With sunset approaching, we detour to Time Square, noted for neon, squalor, and a rapidly-descending glittery ball on the last evening of every year. This world-famous intersection was once cluttered with adult bookstores, peep shows, and prostitutes, both male and female, but experienced a cleaning-up and Disneyfication under the civic leadership of the controversial Rudolph Giuliani. The removal of the square’s seedier element prompted some of the city’s tout le monde to romanticize sidewalks which they probably never set foot on.


Just a stone’s throw away is Radio City Music Hall, a theater most renowned for its leggy Rockette dancers and lavish Yuletide extravaganza, but which started as a motion picture palace, and it was here, as a wide-eyed nine-year old, that I saw Dino DeLaurentiis’ reboot of King Kong, an awesome adventure inexplicably hated by churlish critics.


Heading again towards the mighty Hudson, we can spot the intricately-carved Statue of Liberty, standing proud in her riverine perch, a sentry who greeted the “unwashed masses” seeking a kind of freedom elusive back home, and now is a beacon to countless tourists, like yourselves, a reminder of what New York is, and what it strives to be.


***


Visions of New York City is yet another chapter in the popular armchair travel series which airs regularly on PBS. Narrated by veteran sportswriter Frank Deford, we’re treated to a helicopter’s view primarily, followed by street-level looks at Manhattan landmarks. As might be expected, nearly all of the sites featured are in Manhattan, which is synonymous with “New York” in the minds of many non-New Yorkers, unless they’re in a mood to reference hellish urban decay, in which case the dreaded South Bronx is invoked; opinions of this now-gentrifying area have been cemented through several excessive NewYorksploitation flicks over the decades, Death Wish III, The Warriors, and their ilk. Nver mind if they were actually set in the Bronx.


The bonus footage contains more notable landmarks, apparently deemed superfluous; PBS only allots an hour for each installment. Among them are Grand Central Station, Columbia University, and Macy’s Herald Square, an indelible New York institution, and familiar to fans of Miracle On 34th Street or the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. Both Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman worked here in the ‘50s, as did some members of my immediate family.


The extra scenes are sans narration, and lack the charming standards featured in the main program, classics like “Manhattan”, “Take The ‘A’ Train”, and the inevitable “Rhapsody In Blue”, a tune so thoroughly associated with New York, thanks partly to Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film of a few years back. Instead, we get harmlessly dull sub-KTWV muzak. At any rate, they amount to only 17 additional minutes.


I won’t feign any objectivity where New York is concerned. It’s the city of my birth, though I spent much of my sheltered upbringing in the suburbs, then departed the East for sunny California in my late teens. I’ve never experienced an adult life in the Big Apple, and have often speculated about the road not taken. Still, it’s not too late to dive back in, even if I’m not as well-heeled – and I’m not referring to Blahniks – as the materialistic, man-hungry damsels of Sex and The City. Visions of New York City, a breezy, celebratory visual travelogue, definitely whets my appetite for that chaotic, dynamic metropolis, and that only leaves me hungrier.

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