Preserving History In Manhattan

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a link to a New York Times article about the wooden escalators at Macy’s in Manhattan.  They were preserved — and upgraded — during a recent renovation effort.

I was thirty-four years old when I visited New York City for the first time, in October 1994.  The trip was planned meticulously, and for the most part it went just the way it was supposed to.

I reserved a seat on a nonstop red eye flight to JFK, which landed while it was still dark outside.  By the time I got out of the terminal, though, there was some sunlight.  The Carey shuttle to Grand Central pulled up to the curb almost immediately, and I boarded with a few of the locals.

The bus ride into Manhattan went smoothly because the day hadn’t started yet for most of the commuters.  From Grand Central, a taxicab took me to Allerton House, a budget hotel for women at 130 East 57th Street near Lexington.

After sitting up all night on a plane, I was completely weirded out.  I don’t recall what I said to the taxicab driver, but he responded with something like, “I’ve heard some wild stories from passengers, but you’re the first person to tell me THAT.”

Actually, I do remember the topic.  I told him the truth about why my first visit three thousand miles away from home was so eventful.  I’m agoraphobic, and rarely wander more than two miles away from Downtown San Francisco.

I wasn’t taking any medication for anxiety, and hadn’t learned relaxation techniques.  So, I flew to New York “cold.” In retrospect, that’s something to be proud of, although it isn’t recommended.

It was worth the discomfort.  Although I never left Manhattan during the few days I was in N.Y., the city’s adrenaline helped vent the anxiety.  On the public sidewalks, I walked as fast as the people who lived there.  I rode the subway like a pro, and got lost only a couple of times.  The previous two years had been spent studying NYC travel books, transit maps and street maps, so I maneuvered around the city just fine.  Two years of an agoraphobe’s travel fantasies had prepared me for the real experience.

On the last morning before checking out of the hotel to return home, I finally broke down and did a typical tourist thing (okay, it was the seventh or eighth tourist thing, but no one wants to admit things like that): I rode the subway to Cortlandt Station and got in line for the observation deck at WTC 2.  The view was unbelievable.

On September 11, 2001, I thought of the people I walked by who worked in that building.  It was impossible to remember any faces, but I wondered how many of them were still working there when the planes hit and whether they got out safely.  We all have different points of reference for the Sept. 11 tragedy, and that’s one of mine.

I visited NYC once more during the 1990s.  In the spring of 1995, my mother went with me.  We stayed at Allerton House, in two rooms.  The rooms were side-by-side, with a shared bath.  My mother was impressed with my skill as a tour guide, and I was grateful to be able to keep the agoraphobia in check so she wouldn’t freak out with me.

My next visit was much later, in early fall 2012, less than a month before Hurricane Sandy.  The storm wasn’t an issue for me because I was back in San Francisco before we knew a hurricane was starting.

The 2012 stay was less interesting.  By the late 1990s, Allerton House was closed.  The building went through different changes before becoming Renaissance New York Hotel 57.  It still had the brick facade, but other than that the building was unrecognizable.  I didn’t see the floors where the guest rooms were located, but I did step into the lobby and look around for a couple of minutes before leaving.  It was pretty, but not as nice as Allerton House’s crappy lobby.

The delicatessen on Lexington where I got some of my food in 1994 and 1995 was gone by 2012.  I tried to place the exact storefront, and decided it was probably the address where a Subway franchise was serving mediocre sandwiches.  I missed the woman at the front counter with the raspy voice who shouted customer orders to the man preparing food in the back of the deli.

7-Eleven was everywhere, and I saw none of the Western Union offices which had been all over Midtown before.  I hoped anyone who had to call home to ask for money knew how to go about that in Modern New York.

I stayed at The OUT NYC Hotel, a remodeled Hell’s Kitchen motel.  I loved the staff, and tipped accordingly.  At the time, I wouldn’t say anything against the place, and ignored the cheap furnishings and poor sound insulation in a room which cost around four hundred a night.  The packet of ear plugs on the pillow was a tacky omen.  I had flown in on another red eye, and a loud music party was held on the so-called Great Lawn across from my room during my first evening there.

The staff was sympathetic, and I continued to defend the hotel whenever anyone said anything negative.

I finally let myself criticize The OUT NYC after hearing about one of the hotel’s founders participating in a right-wing fundraiser.  My bisexual dollar(s) paid for THAT?

But I digress.

The New York Times isn’t the paper it used to be, either.  If you’re old enough to remember when New York City had real character and a real newspaper, try not to let the memory fizzle out.  It’s part of your own history, too.

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