Malwina Chabocka – Art & Design
Malwina Chabocka – Art & Design

New York: dreaming of the concrete jungle

In the beginning of last year, I wrote a couple of rather lengthy posts about my trip to California. If visiting US had been a long dream of mine, then visiting New York had been the essence of that dream. Back in November 2022, I was curious and excited but I had no real expectations — I wasn’t prepared to fall in love, or even become especially fond of Los Angeles. This time, it was different. I felt that I had fallen in love with the idea of New York a long time ago, and now I was only going there to reconfirm my feelings. Therefore, an inevitable concern arose: with expectations so high, I’m bound to be disappointed. The excitement was mixed in equal parts with trepidation.

I prepared myself for disappointment, but I was secretly hoping that I would enjoy the trip nevertheless, even if I were to be a little underwhelmed. The idea that New York could exceed the crazily high expectations I had didn’t even cross my mind. But guess what — that’s exactly what happened. And since this was technically a honeymoon trip, it made for a very memorable experience.


On the grid

When planning the trip, our first idea for accommodation was a classic brownstone building. My husband, who works as a cloud architect, is also passionate about the real kind of architecture, and knows a great deal about the history of buildings in many places around the world, including New York (I barely managed to talk him out of bringing with us his beloved 500-pages-in-small-print book, A History of Housing in New York City). And while there’s no shortage of brownstone apartments for rent, the ones that were within our budget, appeared to be coming with cockroaches, according to Airbnb reviews. I got traumatised by cockroaches when I was living in Portugal and now I’d rather sleep under a bridge than face that horror again. But luckily, we found a nice place in a rather unusual early 20th century Tudor house on a leafy street in Brooklyn. The house came with a porch, where we’d begin our days with breakfast (we love eating outside and whenever it’s not too cold or raining here in The Hague, we bring our plates into the hofje) and would chill with a beer after the long days of sightseeing. And in between the two, we were exploring the city.

New York in general is based on a number of grid systems (yes, there are at least a few in Brooklyn), but of course the most famous one is the Manhattan grid and once you start analysing it, it becomes quite fascinating. The system comes from The Commissioners’ Plan in 1811, “the single most important document in New York City’s development”, which was introduced to bring order to the haphazardly created streets after the British took over the Dutch colony (the so called New Netherland) in 1664, changing its name to New York (more about that later). The grid applies to the streets of Manhattan above Houston Street and below 155th Street, which are numbered, 60 feet wide (18 m), with about 200 feet (61 m) between each pair of streets, creating 2,000 long, narrow blocks. The standard block in Manhattan is about 264 by 900 feet (80 m × 274 m).

Once you understand what it means to “walk 5 blocks”, things become easier. And then there’s “uptown” and “downtown”: the former means any part of Manhattan north of 14th Street, which is the first street that passes completely uninterrupted from east to west. The latter applies to any part of Manhattan south of 14th Street.

Manhattan is split in half by 5th Avenue and the streets change East or West, depending on which side of it they’re on. But there are some interesting irregularities, and one of them is the fact that despite this seemingly precise division, there are more avenues on the east side of Manhattan than the west (there’s 1st Ave, 2nd Ave, 3rd Ave, Lexington, Park, Madison, and finally 5th Ave; 4th Avenue was renamed Park Avenue South). Then there are four extra avenues which have an alphabet letter instead of a number, and form what is known as “Alphabet City”, located between Houston Street and East 14th Street, to the south and north; Avenue A and the Hudson River, to the west and east.

Another exception to the rule is Broadway, which was established before the Commissioner’s Plan, and operates on a diagonal crossing from east to west on Manhattan, and every place where Broadway crosses an avenue, there’s a square: Union Square, Madison Square, Times Square and so on.

Understanding the grid system is the first step to navigating New York with ease. The second one is understanding how the New York City Subway works.

Take the Q train

The New York Subway is one of the world’s oldest and most-used public transit systems, with the most stations (472) and some of the oldest routes. Yes, unlike Los Angeles, people in New York do use public transport. And I’m not surprised — with a 24/7 service and affordable prices, it’s much more convenient than driving.

There are 28 train services in the subway system, including three short shuttles. Each route has a colour and a local or express designation representing the Manhattan trunk line of the service. Tourists often refer to services by colour (e.g., “blue line” or “green line”) but New Yorkers only use the alphabet letters (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, L, M, N, Q, R, S, Z), and numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Also, New Yorkers never refer to the subway system as the metro, underground, or tube, they always say “trains”. Which makes a lot of sense — it is so different from any metro system I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many!) that it merits a different nomenclature.

First of all, this system requires a lot of reading. Unlike in other countries, due to the large number of transit lines, one platform or set of platforms often serves more than one service, so one must look at the painted signs (yes, painted, there are no modern digital displays) hung at the platform entrance steps and over each track to see which trains stop there and when, and at the arriving train to see which train it is. This will often mean that by the time you’ve checked if it is indeed your train, it will have already left, but I’m guessing locals know these by heart. We were able to find our way, but many visitors might appreciate this detailed guide.

Another place where locals show their expertise is understanding conductor’s announcements. Well, not all of them — the NYC Transit Authority found that only 17% of the NYC subway stations had audible delay announcements, but at least a great deal more than a helpless tourist like me. One Reddit user wrote: “Now if I hear a Dear passengughhh gurblgherhagehrtrainswooshghgh I just instinctively get off at the next stop. Guaranteed devils lie ahead.”

The next thing: a lot of platforms are narrow. Like, CRAZILY narrow. The Union Square L platform has a reputation as the most anxiety-inducing due to its slim standing area coupled with constant overcrowding, but there are many others which can raise your adrenaline before you even get to the office.

A couple of years ago, a man called Erik Seims wrote an article on LinkedIn about why Cortelyou Road and Beverley Road stations (which are less than 200 metres apart) should be destroyed and replaced with a single modern and properly designed station. It’s not just that they’re completely inaccessible to wheelchair users — the 2.4-metre-wide platforms punctured by numerous support pillars are terrifying and dangerous to anyone, let alone people with mobility problems.

But still, regardless of all the issues and quirks, it’s a fantastic system. With our apartment located a mere few minutes from, incidentally, Beverley Road subway station, it was extremely easy to get around. Interestingly, the only reason that Beverley Road exists (it is so close to Cortelyou station that a regular Q train can’t exit one station fully without beginning to enter the other) is because one wealthy resident made a request to have a station built closer to his house. Or so the story goes.

No Sleep Till Breukelen

Discovering New York is fascinating to a foreigner. It’s even more fascinating when you’re a foreigner coming from the Netherlands, because prior to the city becoming New York, it had been called New Amsterdam and served as the seat of the colonial government in New Netherland in the 17th century. Brooklyn (Breukelen), Harlem (Haarlem), Wall Street (Waal Straat) – are all taken from colonial Dutch. In a BBC article, Andrea Valentino writes that “if the funfair at Coney Island had been built in 1650, meanwhile, it would have been overrun with bunnies: conyne was what the Dutch settlers called wild rabbit.”

The Dutch past echoes not just in street names. Back when the English settlers were hanging Quakers in Boston in mid 17th century, the Dutch in New Netherland promoted tolerance and diversity, just like the “old” Netherlands was a place of religious freedom (or so some say), welcoming religious minorities. And even though the English conquered and subsequently annexed the whole of New Netherland in 1664, traces of Dutch settlement have survived, both in the spirit and the architecture. Besides buildings which have survived intact, many modern buildings in New York were built in direct reference to the Dutch colonial past, resulting in a style called “Dutch Colonial”, which, according to the building restorer and historian Tim Adriance is one of the “three indigenous architectural forms in the United States” (the other two are the skyscraper and the ranch house). It lives in the language too: coleslaw was koolsla (cabbage salad), cookie — koekje (little cake), spooky comes from spook (ghost), dollar – daalder, booze comes from the verb bozen (to drink heavily), cruise from kruizen (“sail to and fro”) and Santa Claus was a Sinterklaas.

But to me, the main influence of the Dutch is the spirit of open trade and everyone being welcome. The first thing I saw upon arriving in New York, was a giant LGBTQ+ flag hanging at The Oculus Transportation Hub at The World Trade Center, in celebration of the Pride Month. But that was just the beginning — during the 10 day stay, I saw the city literally oozing with rainbow colours and motifs. Despite living in the Netherlands, I had never seen a city so covered in LGBTQ+ symbols and flags, from prominent city buildings to local bars and cafes.

I also did not feel like an outsider — unlike London, in New York (and California too) nobody seemed to give a toss about my accent. It’s a welcome change from the constant curiosity and questioning of where you’re from which you get if you live abroad. It takes a lot to get the attention of passersby. Prior to visiting New York, I thought that London is the most diverse city in the world, but no place seemed to me as diverse as New York subway. In one carriage you’ll find a representation of every possible culture and subculture, mixed in with musicians, preachers and regular office folk. It’s absolutely wonderful.

An isle of cash and joy

If you’ve ever watched Sex and the City, then you heard that when it comes to New York, there’s no life outside of Manhattan. Two years after the final episode had aired, this “cradle of gentry liberalism”, as one journalist called it, had achieved the widest gap between rich and poor in the whole country. Nearly two decades later, that gap hasn’t shrunk one bit. The wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites earned approx. household income of $545,549, making on average 53 times as much as the bottom 20%, who earned an average of $10,259, according to 2022 census data. The median household income has fallen since the pandemic by almost 7%.

Every article I found online says that in order to have a life, and not merely survive in New York, one needs a 6-figure salary. Last year, Curbed did a great piece where they asked young New Yorkers about their dreams regarding area of living and lifestyle, and then calculated how much those dreams would in fact cost. The results were pretty shocking, even though those calculations didn’t include Manhattan. The cost of living in Manhattan is 74% higher than the state average and 127% higher than the national average. A few months ago, Soho-based real estate agent Erik Conover posted on Instagram a photo of New York City’s smallest flat, located at St. Mark’s Place on the Lower East Side, which measures 55 square feet (approx. 13 square metres) and costs… $1,400 per month.

The answer to that is going well into the suburbs (and by that I mean Mount Vernon, not the already gentrified Brooklyn) and, as one Reddit user suggests, living in a noisy closet and having the city as your living room.

But when you’re a tourist, none of that matters, and you can walk up and down the 5th Avenue completely oblivious to its unaffordable estate market. And that’s exactly what we did.

Starting with a rainy Union Square on the first day, we walked through Madison Square, Broadway, and 5th Avenue, up to Bryant Park where we enjoyed one of the New York street food staples: chicken on rice. The great thing about New York is the supply of both food trucks as well as public chairs and tables with umbrellas, so grabbing and comfortably eating a takeaway lunch whilst it’s raining is not an issue.

We then popped into the beautiful Beaux-Arts style New York City Library in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building and visited the apparently fanciest public bathroom in the city, the bathroom in Bryant Park (also Beaux-Arts style) which is decorated with fresh flowers, paintings of the park made by artists-in-residence, and has a background of curated classical music.

We tried to recreate the shot from When Harry Met Sally in Washington Square Park, had matzo ball soup at the pleasantly familiar language-wise kosher B&H Dairy and a shockingly cheap curry at the quirky Punjabi Deli in the Ukrainian Village, then walked through the East Village and enjoyed the sunshine in Tompkins Square Park. We saw Hudson Yards, one of New York City’s newest neighbourhoods, and strolled through the 1.45-mile-long (approx. 2.3km) High Line greenway on the West Side of Manhattan, which was built on the historic elevated rail line and offers beautiful views and a very peaceful atmosphere.

We visited Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District, the New Museum in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the Guggenheim on the Upper East Side. We did NOT queue for a picture with the Charging Bull statue in the Financial District but took a picture of the Fearless Girl statue instead. The bull statue was created by Italian artist Arturo Di Modica in the wake of the 1987 Black Monday stock market crash, was installed on Wall Street, then removed by the police, and then reinstalled as a temporary installation which eventually became permanent. The Fearless Girl is a bronze sculpture by Kristen Visbal, which was installed in 2017 facing the Charging Bull, but following Di Modica’s complaints, it was placed across from the New York Stock Exchange Building. With its message about workplace gender diversity, encouraging companies to recruit women to their boards, it spoke to us much more than the capitalist bull.

Manhattan is fascinating because of its great architectural variety. A hop, skip and a jump from the New York Stock Exchange Building is the Trinity Church from 1697 where one can escape the noise. North of the exceedingly busy Times Square, there’s Central Park, which feels almost like stepping out of the city. New York is associated with the stunning skyline, but let’s not forget about historical places such as St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway from 1766, or Angel Orensanz Center, formerly a Jewish synagogue built in 1849, which is the oldest standing temple in New York City and the fourth oldest in the nation. Also, within the skyline itself there are some incredible historical skyscrapers like The Tower Building (1889), American Tract Society (1896) or the Flatiron Building (1901), which are intertwined with brand new super-tall buildings such as One World Trade Center (541 metres, built in 2014), Steinway Tower,(2022), the skinniest skyscraper in the world with a staggering ratio of 24:1; or One Vanderbilt, which we had the pleasure of visiting.

A Cosmopolitan at 1,401 feet

There are many “must-do’s” in New York, and going up a skyscraper to watch the cityscape is one of them. The question is always which one, because the choice is vast. Luckily, the decision had been made for us, since our friends gave us the Summit One Vanderbilt experience as a beautiful wedding gift. Now, in my naivety, I thought that visiting a skyscraper means going up the lift to admire the views. But in America, everything is monetised and commercialised, so any venture gets packed with as many ways to make money as possible. It began with a screening, “a self congratulatory intro movie where the billionaire developers talk about how Manhattan desperately needed another skyscraper”, to quote one reviewer, followed by having our photos taken against a greenscreen and another set of photos taken at photobooths, before we could enter the lift. But that didn’t take us to the summit: first, we needed to go through a mirrored floor, a mirrored ball room, and a Yayoi Kusama exhibition, followed by a lengthy queue to have our photo taken standing on the “glass shelf” (not for people with acrophobia). And only then, finally, were we able to proceed to look at the view, with a glass of Cosmopolitan in our hand.

And the views were stunning. Since ours was a “sunset experience”, I was glad that we had a whole hour before sunset, because with the amount of activities, we would have arrived at the top when it was already dark. This way, we could observe the changes in the light and atmosphere, the city putting on its evening attire, and all the lights brightening up against the progressively darker sky. It was magical.

Time passing by in Times Square

But magic can also be found on the ground level, as we discovered in Times Square, which, from what I’ve seen, is very much a love or hate kind of place.

Together with adjacent Duffy Square, Times Square is a bowtie-shaped plaza five blocks long between 42nd and 47th Streets. These days, it is mostly associated with the famous New Year’s Eve Ball which millions of people watch drop in order to ring in the New Year, as well as with massive neon billboards, and various characters in costumes walking around the square, but its history is much more interesting. It was Times Square where on 14th August 1945, some 2 million people (the largest crowd in history) gathered to celebrate the U.S. victory in World War II. And its current look is thanks to the revitalization campaign which took place in 1990s and 2000s turning the seedy neighborhood filled with porn shops, X-rated movie theatres, live sex shows and decrepit tenements, into one of the biggest tourist attractions in New York.

We went to Times Square twice, once during the day, and once at night, and I was mesmerized on both occasions.The omnipresence of flashy screens makes the place totally surreal and creates a sense of escapism. The business of visuals, people and sounds, puts one in a trance. A very enjoyable trance, I must add.

But the screens in Times Square are not just ads, they also function as a platform broadcasting the city’s political agenda. The number of anti-Trump messages were a refreshing reminder of the liberal and sane part of America, which frankly doesn’t often feature in European headlines. While Times Square is a place where one can forget about the rest of the word, New York as a city is a place where one can forget about the existence of Trump and his voters.


Broadway is a road that runs for 53km from State Street at Bowling Green through the borough of Manhattan and Bronx, up to and through the Westchester County municipalities of Yonkers, Hastings-On-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, and Tarrytown, terminating north of Sleepy Hollow. Yet to an average person, the name “Broadway” refers to the group of 41 theatres located in the Theater District and the Lincoln Center along Broadway in Midtown Manhattan. We visited one of them.

If you ask people what is the quintessentially “New York thing to do”, going to see a Broadway show will be close to the top of the list. Unfortunately, with the cheapest tickets starting at around $70, and many musicals having a price range between $150-400, it’s a rather costly endeavour. But there are various ways to find discounted tickets, and we tested one of them: an online ticket lottery. If you don’t mind the very short notice with which you’re informed about the performance you’ve won tickets for, it’s a good way to saving money. It did, admittedly, require jumping through several hoops to participate in the lottery as a foreigner, but we managed to snatch a couple of 2nd row tickets to Hadestown with a 50% discount, which made us happy. The performance was impeccably staged and flawless music-wise, and as far as musicals go, it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in my life.

Now, was the experience “quintessentially New York”? I guess it depends on how you identify what constitutes new york-ness. The venue, Walter Kerr Theater, is bizarrely designed in that you entered from the street almost right into the auditorium, bar a tiny space between the security and ticket check. No lobby, no cafe, no space to wait and mingle, or simply digest the performance one is watching. Despite having 975 seats, Walter Kerr felt incredibly small. But then again, one has to remember that most of the Broadway theatres were built at a peculiar time — they evolved from Vaudeville-style theatres, which had different needs for offstage size, and having been built over 100 years ago, they’re much older and therefore smaller than other American theatres. At the same time, they’re much younger than many European theatres, so that might explain the size a bit. Also, let’s not forget that it’s New York, where every piece of real estate is worth crazy amount of money*, and so theatres too need to limit themselves to the bare minimum architecture-wise. Yet this meant that the experience felt a bit “in and out”: a truly fantastic performance was slightly tainted by the limitations of the space. But perhaps this matches the fast-paced character of the city, and so it was, in fact, a New York experience.

And the best thing to do after a Broadway show? A slice of New York pizza. But that’s a topic for part 2 of this post.

* Which is why I was very impressed with the 9/11 Memorial designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, which consists of two waterfall pools created within the old twin towers, surrounded by bronze parapets that list the names of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Opened on 11 September 2011, 10 years after the attacks, it is a very moving and powerful work that honours the victims and everyone who suffered because of the attacks. I’m glad that the city of New York decided not to build anything in place of those two towers. The emptiness speaks more than any traditional monument could.

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