New York: From the ashes

New York's embattled financial district is set to rise again. Rob McFarland finds out more.

Currently under construction, The World Trade Memorial Site will be on e of the US's most visited sites. Photo / Rob McFarland
Currently under construction, The World Trade Memorial Site will be on e of the US's most visited sites. Photo / Rob McFarland

I'm standing in what will soon be one of the most visited memorials in the US. I'm in the footprint of one of the Twin Towers and around me an army of construction workers are transforming the site into an epitaph for the nearly 3000 people who died in the September 11 attacks and the February 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.

The footprints will become two huge pools with waterfalls cascading down their sides and the victims' names inscribed in parapets. Set within a 3ha landscaped plaza filled with 400 trees, the memorial will be a peaceful space in the heart of one of the world's busiest cities.

Located underneath the plaza, the Memorial Museum will feature a walkway that takes visitors down to the foundations of the original World Trade Centre. Along the way they'll pass a collection of exhibitions and artefacts, including the original Survivor Stairs used by many to escape.

The project has not been without problems. There have been funding squabbles and long debates about what to do with the site, but eventually a design was chosen from more than 5000 entries and the project is back on track.

The memorial will open this year on the tragedy's 10-year anniversary and the free preview site on nearby Vesey St gives a good overview of what it will comprise.

The memorial will be a welcome boost for this part of Manhattan, which has struggled through the dark days of the global financial crisis. Eighteen months ago, many of the area's newly built condominiums were empty as the banks and other financial institutions layed people off.

Today, there's a new sense of optimism, not only for the economy, but for the area's fortunes. The memorial is expected to attract five million people a year, which will make it one of New York's most visited attractions.

Hotels are gearing up to meet the demand. I'm staying in the first hotel to open on Wall St - the Andaz - and other properties are starting to pop up in the area. I was initially wary about basing myself in the financial district, but it turned out to be a far more practical location than the traditional tourist haunts of the Upper East and West Side. Battery Park and the ferries to Staten Island are round the corner, up-and-coming Brooklyn is just over the bridge and the area has some of the best subway connections in Manhattan - four lines within a 10-minute walk.

The hotel is a shining example of luxury without formality. A "host" joins me on the sofa for check-in using a wireless PC. There's a lounge that serves free espresso in the morning and complimentary wine and snacks in the evening. There's free wi-fi, free local calls and even a free minibar in the room (non-alcoholic, of course).

Rooms are spacious for New York with black-tiled bathrooms, flat-screen TVs, 2m-high windows and window seats. In fact, the only thing I missed was the soundtrack of sirens, horns and whistles you associate with the city. There's a decent selection of cafes, restaurants and bars nearby, but there's just not that buzz you get uptown.

What the area lacks in vitality, it makes up for in history. This is where New York was born. The Dutch came here in 1625 before the British moved in and named it after the Duke of York.

Much of this part of Manhattan is landfill and behind the Andaz there's a line on the pavement showing where the shoreline used to be.

I know all this because I've been on a walking tour of the district with Uncle Sam's Tours. Led by entertaining guide Jack Stanley, it cleverly uses the life of Alexander Hamilton (the first Secretary of the Treasury and founder of the US Mint) to bring the history of the area alive.

Another activity I'd recommend is hiring a bike. This may sound like an extreme sport, given New York's traffic, but it's a little-known fact that the city has a bike path that skirts around the entire bottom half of Manhattan. After hiring a bike from Bike and Roll in Battery Park, I rode on a path up the west side of the island before cutting across to join the cyclists, skaters, joggers and horse-drawn carriages in Central Park.

In the afternoon I hopped on the free ferry from South Port to Governers Island, which has free concerts and exhibitions through the summer. The car-free island is ideal for exploring by bike with lots of tree-lined avenues that offer glimpses of the New York skyline. If, after a couple of laps, you fancy relaxing with a beer and some sand between your toes, there's even a man-made beach complete with volleyball net.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: United Airlines flies from Auckland to New York via Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Staying there: Andaz Wall Street, 75 Wall Street, New York.

Activities: Uncle Sam's Tours offers two-hour Wall Street tours for $US25 ($31) a person.

Bike and Roll has six hire locations in New York and also offers guided tours. Bike hire starts from $US14 ($17) an hour.

Further information: See nycgo.com.

Rob McFarland was a guest of United Airlines, Andaz Wall St and NYC & Company.

- NZ Herald

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