I dunno about the US – there are a lot of things I simply don’t like. I’ll get to some of those in a minute.
We arrived late last night in New York City, having travelled from Niagara by train. (A train, incidentally, much like a long-distance Australian passenger train – hauled by a diesel, slow, running on freightline tracks, and an hour late by the end of the nominally eight-and-a-half hour journey.)
We’d stayed in Niagara, on the Canadian side of the border, for four nights. The main drawcard was the falls, but we also wanted a nice place to spend Christmas and Boxing days, when many attractions are closed.
Niagara is a mixed bag. I thought the falls rather disappointing – rather like I found with Uluru in Australia, the Niagara Falls look just like the photos… in fact, a bit smaller than I expected. However, there was one view that was really great – from up the top of the larger falls, just near the edge of the river. From that angle, you can see the great flow of river water reaching a point….and then just dropping from sight. Quite uncanny.
You might expect the Niagara Falls to be within a pristine area of bushland, or at least well distant from man-made structures. But not a bit of it. The township of Niagara is built almost on top of the falls, and the town is 100 per cent focused on tourism. So within a stone’s throw of the falls there’s a Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Guinness Book of Records show, Ferris wheel, indoor water fun park – and so on and so on. The mains streets are one continuous theme park; there’s even an intrusive bungee jumping tower just downstream.
It’s all crass and kitsch – and the tens of thousands of tourists appeared to love it.
We caught the Niagara town bus on the US side of the border to the major hydroelectric plant, situated about 10 kilometres downstream of the falls. In summer they apparently give tours of the power station but for our visit, only the visitor’s centre was accessible.
We also took the town bus to Buffalo, the nearest larger centre. Buffalo has a museum devoted to the Pierce Arrow car, luxury machines built pre WWII in this town. The museum, while small, is excellent – with some glorious cars and a good variety of automobilia.
They’ve also done something that’s quite fascinating – and that is to build a 1920s petrol station based on the plans of architect Frank Llloyd Wright. The architect was trying to interest petrol companies in his radical design, but wanted too great a commission on each petrol station that was to be built. The result was that he ended up selling the plans to no one, but now the museum has decided to build a station – indoors – in the way it would have looked. From the fuel filler hoses that hang from the cantilevered forecourt roofs, to the toilets provided for both men and women, to the polished copper cladding and the high neon sign, it’s all quite intriguing.
The train left Niagara at 3pm and we arrived in New York City at about 12.45am. My wife, Georgina, had picked a hotel for that night that was only a few dozen metres from the railway station (Penn Central – a gloriously evocative name in rail terms) and then this morning we swapped to a more distant hotel that was of better quality.
I was up early (well, early for such a late night) because there was an attraction in New York I very much wanted to see. It’s the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Why was I excited? Well, if I were to tell you that this museum has a Space Shuttle, a Concorde, an SR71 Blackbird and a submarine all on display, you’d get excited too! (Note to mention the Intrepid itself – a WWII aircraft carrier!)
However, by the time we swapped hotels and then walked there, it was about 11.30am. Standing in line, I fretted that with a closing time of 5pm, we may have not left enough time to get the best from the museum. I needn’t have worried – an hour and half later, we were walking out the exit.
I am starting to think that many American museums have absolutely no idea. No idea at all.
So what was wrong with it? Fundamentally, the museum was aimed at those with no understanding, and who desired no more understanding. (Yes, just like the Chicago Museum of Science + Industry mentioned earlier in this series.)
The space shuttle has been dressed up to make it look like the public expected! The shuttle, the Enterprise, was a prototype of the final shuttle design. It was never equipped with heat tiles – it didn’t need them as it didn’t do re-entries. But the one on display has been clad with fake tiles. The mind just boggles at such poor historic scholarship.
As with other museums we’ve visited in the US, guides walked around with groups, shouting (they all shout) incredibly inane statements as they held up iPads showing still photos. You hear nothing about the science, the technology, the endeavour – instead you hear utterly trivial ‘human interest’ snippets designed to appeal to people who wouldn’t know a re-entry angle from a hole in the ground.
The aircraft arranged on the flight deck – including the SR71 – were fine, although the explanatory signs were all designed with the lowest common denominator in mind. For example, the ‘key fact’ for the Harrier was that because it could take off vertically, it had featured in many blockbuster movies!
Concorde? It was stuck out in the open air at the orphan end of the museum. Its sign – all of 20 x 30cm in size – had a description that clearly understated the significance of the aircraft – presumably because it wasn’t American. (But it’s still a beautiful, elegant, bewitching and simply stunning aircraft – even when I’ve seen three before.)
The aircraft carrier itself? To my eyes, the unhappy combination of a museum trying to conduct itself inside (and on) what is itself an historic artefact meant that neither succeeded.
And the submarine? The queues were long and you just knew that the guided tour would be aimed at 8 year olds. We skipped it.
Now if the bill for the visit had been (say) AUD$30, I’d have just shrugged. But these museums are charging massive amounts – AUD$100 for two adults and a child….and that’s the cheapest entry!
I might add that these dumbed-down museums are very popular. Even in late December, there were thronging crowds… very few of whom appeared to have any particular interest in the subject matters of the museum.
So why were they there? One reason became clear –people just love being photographed in front of the museum displays. I don’t think that they had any notion of what the displays were of, but they wanted to be able to say: “Oh yes, here I am in front of a helicopter at the Intrepid museum in New York – last winter you know darrrling.”
So we left the museum and re-joined the throngs of pushing and shoving people on the narrow footpaths, and fought our way through the nearly impenetrable masses (making sure we didn’t step on the beggars sitting at each intersection, holding up forlorn signs) to the New York Public library. A grand structure, we entered with enthusiasm. Inside, we found more masses of people.
Masses of people excitedly poring through books? Of course not. Masses taking photos of each other, and some taking videos of themselves.
We walked up and down three floors of the library, trying to find something that you’d expect in a library. You know – the books.
In the end, I had to ask an attendant – only to find that nearly all the books are hidden away. Looking at the multitudinous philistines, I wasn’t surprised they’d hidden them. But, we were told, there were one or two rooms we could visit where there were some real books on display! We went to one, only to be confronted by yet another tourist, her husband taking her photo as she pretended to read a book she’d literally just picked at random off the shelf.
The library and the museum had strong parallels – thousands of people for whom the place and objects they were visiting had zero significance… except as a way of spending some time, and being able to say that they’d been there.
It was really all quite revolting.
So we’ve had another couple of crap days in this place none of us likes – New York City.
Yesterday we had a busy day planned. First thing, we took advantage of this (very expensive) hotel’s shuttle service. In Detroit, the hotel shuttle was a van; in New York it’s a current model Maserati four-door. A Maserati with very worn rear dampers driven by a driver with the worst throttle and brake control of any driver I’ve ever experienced. On, off. On, off. On, off… for the whole trip.
We were dropped at Battery Point, where we expected to get a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. But that theory was nixed when we saw the length of the ferry queue – well over half a kilometre long.
We then walked to the former site of the World Trade Center twin towers, now a commemorative area with the new One Trade skyscraper. We wanted to visit the museum – but that idea disappeared when we saw the long queue… for tickets that would become current only 3 hours later. (Obviously all previous museum entries had been taken.) At this stage in our trip, we have developed a very low opinion of most American museums, so the idea of waiting around for 3 hours to experience something that is quite likely not to be very good (in our terms) left something to be desired.
From there we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge – a wonderful engineering structure and probably one of the most iconic bridges in the world. As we’ve come to expect, none of the throngs of tourists took the slightest interest in the bridge, but instead just took photos and videos of each other in a myriad of poses. I thought the bridge – with its rivets and cables, trussed deck and ornate touches – the best thing I have seen in New York City.
We walked back across another great bridge – the Manhattan bridge. It’s also a suspension design, but as the engineering commemorative plaque suggests, really the first modern design of suspension bridge ever built.
We still had plenty of afternoon available, so subway’d and walked to the Museum of Natural History. But you guessed it, with a queue longer than I could actually see the end of, we skipped it.
At this time of year no-where have we seen so many people – not in London, not in Berlin. And since the most popular museums we have been to in the US have been the worst, the incentive to line up for hours at a time is very low.
Today we went to the Cradle of Aviation museum on Long Island. I won’t bore you with all the details – here’s a summary:
- AUD$50 and three hours for two adults and a child to get the 30 kilometres there and back on crap public transport
- AUD$50 entry for two adults and child
- An OK museum (and, it must be said, better than OK in terms of space artefacts) but also one that did not live up anywhere near to its advertising – especially in the use of replicas instead of the real machines the website suggested it had on display.
- Appalling food (sandwich heavy enough to use as a weapon, chips that tasted a day old, a burger with a patty so raw it was bleeding). I am not much into food, but this was near inedible.
My wife Georgina and I have been puzzling over all this: why are we on this trip seeing so little that we class as good? When in the UK and Germany every single day we saw one or two stunning things? We did the US trip planning in exactly the same way that we did for the UK and Germany, and Georgina is performing at her normal scintillating level of logistical organisation.
The difference is the USA.
So far, for us the public transport has been poor, the museums (mostly) poor, the people are either greasily sycophantic (expecting a tip) or peremptory and rude (not expecting a tip), the inequity in wealth even worse than the UK, and the sheer bellowing loudness of people as they conduct normal private conversations utterly off-putting.
Add to that the weirdos – drugged, drunk, mentally deranged – on every single bus and train that we have travelled on in the US, the beggars and the touts - and well, it’s not a place with much to recommend it to the tourist.
And it’s not like we have been staying in impoverished areas – here’s the beggar camped outside our hotel on Fifth Avenue, New York…
It’s so unlike what we wanted that today we looked seriously at scrapping the rest of the itinerary and flying – say – to look at the Grand Canyon and some mesas and buttes. We can’t do it – the remaining schedule is too tight – but I hope that the Washington museums and Cape Kennedy Space centre actually meet minimum standards of scholarship and intellectual level that any normal literate Australian would expect.
That’s a pretty stunning statement, but when you’ve seen what we’ve seen…