Looking for the heart of New York

By Chris Barton

After striding purposefully around the perimeter of Ground Zero, it's with exasperation that I approach the security guy who has just checked the underside of the truck entering the site with a mirror on a pole. They have to be kidding, I think to myself. Who is going to blow up a truckload of dirt in a pit?

But American security paranoia is not my concern - although I am still fuming about the journalist visa rigmarole I've been through to get here. And I'm not happy about being treated like a criminal - fingerprinted - before I leave and on arrival. I've never been fingerprinted by my own country, but the Americans have taken the most uncivil of liberties and now greet visitors this way. Welcome to the land of the free.

"Excuse me, can you tell me why there is no viewing area?"

"I'm sorry, I really can't answer that question." The guy with orange hard hat and security label on his back laughs. "Maybe it's because there's nothing to see."

"But isn't that why people come - to see what's gone?"

"Yeah, I guess so," he shrugs.

I thank him for his help and wander back along the fence at Liberty St to the small stone memorial to New York's finest and bravest - the police and firefighters who died here.

It is blocked off from the public behind a rusty chained gate which is momentarily opened for a family member, who places flowers among the badges, flags, caps, helmets and other mementos to the fallen. From the private viewing area she stares into the pit, but quickly turns away. This is a painful, padlocked ground.

Passing the graffiti on the hoardings - "Yo, New York ... I see the nasty scar is starting to heal ... a little . . " - I climb the stairs to the south foot bridge over West St where you'll get one of the best views of the enormity of the September 11 devastation.

But as with everywhere on this perimeter, the view is impeded - in this instance by glass and a rope cordon that keeps viewers half a metre away from the windows. For an unmitigated wide area glimpse, proceed a little further up West St towards the Vesey St overbridge.

At the top of the stairs, a gap in the solid hoardings provides a precarious porthole. Not the viewing platform I was hoping for, but at least it's clear. Elsewhere a 4m chainlink fence blurs your vision.

Despite what the security man says, the huge excavation has quite a lot to see: stubby remnants of steel columns; the large slurry wall along West St that held back the Hudson River; the two pieces of steel left standing in the shape of a cross; the ramp into the pit; the jagged basement floors of what was World Trade Centre Building 6; and what looks like a water pipe, maybe a tunnel, sticking out of the foundation wall in the middle of the site.

There are signs of rebuilding - mounds of raw building materials, earth-moving machinery and bare slabs of early construction. Daily activity has also returned, with commuters moving to and from the recently reopened Port Authority Trans-Hudson (Path) subway station, entered through a canopy on Church St.

But the overall effect is perplexing - as though what is there, or rather the absence of what was there, is not meant to be seen. Obviously, for safety reasons this perimeter needs a fence, but this visual barrier - hoardings and a galvanised steel grill - seems designed to make looking, let alone gawking, difficult.

The paradox is highlighted by iconic ruins pictures of the fateful day fixed to the Church St fence. To look here is clearly okay, but to look behind the pictures, behind the fence to the aftermath, is not.

Perhaps the fence is holding something in. The pit undoubtedly contains grief, but maybe also shame or guilt. But for a fingerprinted, visiting New Zealander, unavoidably affected by the terrorist suicide-murder, it's the fence holding me out that blights my purpose - to pay my respects. I hope my frustrated perimeter circuit is enough.

Tragedy as a tourist attraction is always difficult, but not impossible. Earlier, we visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, a short walk south of the World Trade site.

Subtitled "A Living Memorial to the Holocaust" the building tells its story of grief, suffering, shame and pain coercively - spiralling visitors upwards around three hexagonally shaped floors from the dark to the light. Our visit coincides with Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - so we get the bonus of Holocaust survivors recounting their ordeals among the exhibits.

It's a heavy experience that is too much for a group of school kids who appear to make an early exit. "Show some respect," their teacher admonishes. "This is to remind us that genocide can happen to anyone today. Have you not heard of Kosovo, Rwanda, Dafur?"

The third floor delivers us outside to the Garden of Stones and a view of the Statue of Liberty across the harbour. The memorial is laden with symbolism - 18 hollowed-out boulders each with a single sapling dwarf oak which shows through a small hole at the top of some of the stones.

The idea is that as the trees mature their trunks will fuse with the stone, suggesting how nature can survive under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Meanwhile, plans have advanced for a Ground Zero memorial. Called "Reflecting Absence", the design puts underground almost everything that is now exposed and features waterfalls to sunken reflecting pools in the footprints of the twin towers. The open burial ground of today will be well and truly buried.

Plans are also progressing for a mangled version of the "Freedom Tower" designed to replace what is missing in the Manhattan skyline - a black hole you can observe most dramatically from the Staten Island Ferry at night. "I miss that skyline," a Staten Islander confesses as we pass the ghostly green visage of the Statue of Liberty.

But if New York is still struggling with what should and shouldn't be seen at Ground Zero, the rest of the city seems as alive, bustling, impatient and full of cliches as ever.

We have barely begun our US$45 ($72) cab ride from JFK airport to our hotel near Times Square when our driver takes umbrage at another car cutting him off.

We screech to a halt on the side of the freeway. A stocky, grey-haired Italian - clearly afflicted with a rage condition - menaces towards us.

Our black cabbie, who may also have anger-management issues, brandishes a steering lock bar and threatens to kick the Italian's ass.

The Italian stands his ground inches from our cabbie's face with a tirade of racist expletives.

He heads back to his car. I'm convinced he's going to get a gun and we're all going to die. But my door is wedged against the other car. There's no escape and I have no idea what to do.

The scene is replayed two more times - driving off, screeching to a halt, expletives, other car's horns blaring. Eventually our driver contents himself - "I gotchoo mother******" - with writing down the Italian's number plate. Welcome to the Big A.

New York cliche number two occurs that night as we take the electric air of Times Square and, wandering back to our hotel, come across a crowd gathered outside the stage doors of Three Days of Rain.

New York cops on horses try half-heartedly to clear the street as Julia Roberts, who has been savaged by critics for her performance, emerges and signs autographs. "We still love you Julia," cries a fan. Somehow my camera captures a blurry shot of her across the sea of amateur paparazzi heads.

My camera, now finely tuned to the whiff of celebrity, whirs again when my partner and daughter unashamedly fawn and pose with Woody Allen, George Clooney, Ozzy Osbourne, Bill Clinton, Paris Hilton and many more. It doesn't seem to matter that they're wax.

I secure two paparazzi exclusives: Jackie Onassis being unceremoniously lifted under the armpits and repositioned behind JFK, and George Bush being wheeled to the back of Madame Tussaud's state room on a trolley.

The next day we are shouted a gorgeous lunch at the very posh Modern. The dining room is minimal Scandinavian - gleaming white and polished. A glass-curtain wall immerses diners in the Museum of Modern Art's sculpture garden.

The redesigned Moma is a marvel of punctuated white cubes and a maze of pathways to view art up, down and all around. So much to see - Andy Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe and Soup Cans, Jackson Pollock's spatterings, Manet, Monet ...

Our visit coincides with a very thorough Edvard Munch exhibition, which includes several prints of The Scream.

The image brings to mind our road-rage incident, gruff waiters who snarl when you don't instantly choose between white, rye or whole-wheat toast with your hash browns, and tired, stressed faces - the throng of humanity - on the subway.

I imagine many New Yorkers, crammed together the way they are, feel like Munch's painting all the time.

Or at least they would if they didn't have Central Park, the place where densely compacted New Yorkers go to decompress.We enter from Columbus Circle where a homeless person is asleep at the foot of the monument.

The park in early spring is wonderful - full of surprising enclaves, bridges, water and statues.

We learn that squirrels don't like popcorn and have our cliche moment when we happen on the angel at Bethesda Terrace that featured in Angels in America. Someone sitting on the edge of the fountain, dressed in green, wearing a conical hat, and long, fake white beard and hair, waves to us.

We strike more landmark cliches heading down Fifth Avenue: Trump Tower, the Rockefeller Center, St Patrick's Cathedral. Our daughter begins her shopping frenzy at Abercrombie and Fitch, where we are greeted by a young man in camo shorts and jandals.

He is so casual - decompressed - I think he might be a homeless person.

Turns out he's a shop attendant.

The dimly lit interior is pounding with ear-splitting dance music. Banks of museum-like glass cases display carefully laid out, destroyed and distressed jeans.

Monika buys a US$80 destroyed pair with the knees ripped out. "Every teenager loves dance music and every teenager loves to shop - it's clever marketing," she tells me.

The rest of her shopping happens around Soho and Washington Park, where I'm content to admire the weirdly named shops - Rocks in Your Head - and neighbourhood architecture; peruse the "18 miles of books" at the legendary Strand Bookstore; and enjoy a sumptuously thick pastrami on rye sandwich from the deli on the corner of Greene and Waverly Sts with crowds of NYU students in Washington Square.

By now we have our New York feet and impatience. Queuing at TKT in Times Square for discounted tickets for a Broadway show is only just acceptable because the busker on a large kettledrum is so good.

But we can't abide waiting in the stuffy Empire State Building foyer for a lift to the observation deck so we charge up the last six flights of stairs.

The view across the city's canyons and rooftops is a triumph of tolerable crowding.

But it's not as good as the view from the Twin Towers.

I was once fortunate enough to have lunch at the 107th-floor Windows on the World restaurant.

Once again the scar and the missing towers are painfully apparent. Impatiently, I want them back.

Checklist

New York

Getting There
Air Tahiti Nui flies Auckland to New York, stopping at Papeete, three days a week on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays; and New York to Auckland twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays. All up, the flight is a somewhat gruelling 18 hours with a short (1-2 hour) stop in Papeete. The Auckland-Papeete leg is about five hours and the Papeete-New York segment about 12 hours. From $2616 return.

Accommodation
The Westin New York at Times Square - 270 West 43rd Street. Double room, two adults from US$409 ($658) a night. The rooms' "Heavenly Bed" really is heavenly.

Getting Around
Walk - love that grid system - with a good map.
Subway

Where To Eat
The Modern - 9 West 53rd Street. Jackets required for dinner.
Westway Diner - 614 Ninth Avenue - allegedly the place where Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld came up with the idea for a show about nothing. Huge cooked breakfast for around US$5 ($6.30).

Things To Do
Madame Tussauds New York, 234 West 42nd Street.
The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street.
The Strand Bookstore, corner 12th Street and Broadway.
Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, Battery Park
Staten Island Ferry - take in New York Harbour, the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline free.

More Information
See New York website below.

* Chris Barton travelled to New York courtesy of Air Tahiti Nui.

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