A Day in Jersey City: Weekend Glories

Wide streets framed with high trees. A typical American diner serving silver dollar pancakes to big families. A not too crowded park that leads you through the jungle to the open water.

Last Sunday I spent a day in New Jersey together with my friends who showed me around. They are a couple and moved into their new apartment at the beginning of this year. Because they wanted to be close to the City but couldn’t afford the outrageous one-bedroom rates of Manhattan, they choose Jersey City as their new home destination. I don’t think they’ve ever regretted crossing the Hudson River ever since. They were simply over their shared apartment situation in Bushwick and NJ was exactly what they needed: A peaceful area with affordable rentals and lots of opportunities to travel in and out of New York.

Now, there are several ways to get over to New Jersey. You can rely on a bus or New Jersey transit, a train that will take you from the main stations, such as Penn and Grand Central, to the bigger cities. The easiest means of travel is most likely the PATH: An underground train that you can catch throughout Manhattan and that catapults you to the Garden State within minutes.

Coming from Brooklyn, I took the PATH from the World Trade Center Station. It is a little bizarre to get there via this route because you first have to take the R to Cortland Street and, instead of switching over to the PATH underground, you will have to walk out of the subway station, a few blocks past the new Liberty Tower, then take a left to finally enter the train station. Got it? Exactly! It took me two tries to get there. In case you get lost, there are a few stingy signs on the way but unfortunately it is easier to orient yourself on the hectic crowds scurrying ahead of you then relying on the scarcely written words. Of course the PATH can feel like you are transformed to a different universe at times, especially since so many people from New Jersey are taking it. While they are not completely foreign, the vibes you get on the PATH are just so very different than anywhere else in the city. The funniest costume I’ve seen on it so far was the Bird Man: An eccentric-looking guy who dresses in fluffy, uni-colored outfits every day and either walks the Brooklyn Bridge or travels over to New Jersey. Back in February he had his red outfit on as he was was buying a ride over to NJ. Right when I got this awesome shot of him.

Other than that, a PATH ride can be rather uneventful. Compared to NYC subways, of course. To get to Jersey City, I got off at Grove Street, which catapulted me into the center of this quaint town (or so it seemed). Especially since it was the weekend, I saw people walking around fruit and veggie stands as soon as I was above ground. Perfect timing for a weekly green market in the middle of the town.

While taking a look around and walking towards my friends’ house, I discovered a good indicator of having left the Big Apple for sure: The streets were wider, the avenues longer, and everyone a bit happier. Jersey City can also easily convey the airs of a hipster town or college student center, I have found. When walking through the streets, I have sometimes been struck by a striking resemblance to Park Slope, except for that the roads are further apart. “No wonder you felt that way!” my friend explained to me. “The brownstones you see here are from the exact same era than the brownstones in Brooklyn. Together with the trees lining the streets and the occasional dog and baby stroller, you can surely have the impression that you are still in the Slope.”

Jersey City graffiti

In the beginning I really did not feel like I had left my neighborhood. Until I saw the restaurants and bars. A neighborhood group gathered around huge TVs. Or the Sunday brunch crowd. Just so very different than in Breukelen. On Sunday my friends wanted to show me how huge the portions are you get in New Jersey. Therefore, they picked their favorite diner only minutes from their apt. “We really love that everything is close-by. You don’t need a car – unlike everyone wants to make you believe when you mention you are moving to Jersey. Bars, cafes, restaurants – everything is so close and we don’t even leave the town anymore on the weekends unless we have to”, my friends were eager to point out to me. True, the PATH was a good 15 mins walk away. But everything else was about as close as it could get.

Such as the Brownstone Diner & Pancake Factory diner, for example. A few blocks over and close to the park, we entered it on a busy Saturday afternoon. Early lunch time. Big families with infants and babies who were devouring huge portions of scrambled eggs, and pancakes, and bacon … you name it! My mouth was watering just by looking at the food. “This is our favorite spot” my friend proudly announced as he heard my stomach growl. “And the best thing about it is that it is just so much cheaper than Manhattan!” Well, in Manhattan you would not find diners like these. I am sure they would be boycotted by some green/go-vegan/preserve-the-originality-of-New-York kinda group. Which is absolutely fine, that’s why New Jersey offers a close compromise, where you can devour a family-sized breakfast and not feel guilty. For ten bucks I got a cheese omelet, silver-dollar-pancakes (how original is that!), home fries and some fresh orange juice. What a meal! I was able to finish about 3/4 of it until I finally gave up. Thumbs up to that!

Huge brunch in New Jersey

After our marathon brunch we were a bit stuffed, so my friends decided to go to one of the biggest parks in town. Their little dog Beija accompanied us and stuck her tiny nose in about everything she came across. On our way to it, she discovered a small snake lying around on the road. I never thought of New Jersey even having snakes, so I learned something new that day (one out of many things, actually).

Liberty State Park is an extensive green area, ideal for walking, hiking, yachting, and sightseeing. So pretty much anything you feel like doing on a weekend. They have cute little benches that overlook the skyline of Manhattan. They also have a historic train station which is now out of service but can still be visited for purposes of photo shoots or simply exploring. That day we saw three different wedding parties posing with their bridesmaids, groom helpers and families in front of the red brick walls of the train station. Luckily it was a gorgeous day out, with a high of 75 and no sign of rain on the baby blue sky.

Liberty State Park
My friends at Liberty State Park

Aside from the old wagons, the green trees, and the towers of Manhattan looming in the background, my friends showed me a very special spot of which I and most likely other New Yorkers had no idea it even existed: The 9/11 Memorial, Jersey-bound. Jersey City built the so-called Empty Sky and finished its construction at the same time the Manhattan counterpart opened to the public – on the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11. Its most predominant features are two opposing walls with the victims’ names, through which visitors can walk and see themselves in mirror-like fashion. These kinds of memorials always give me a huge gulp and I was touched by how every city close to New York seems to remember that one awful day in 2001.

New Jersey’s version of the 9/11 Memorial

Aside from the memorial, the town is connected to New York via ferry route. A boat goes out to Liberty and Ellis Island on a regular basis, which emphasizes the crucial role New Jersey withholds in the Tri-State relationship to New York. Often people, visitors and citizens, tend to forget this.

I was happy to have the chance of seeing Liberty State Park and spending an entire day with my friends whom I have a hard time meeting in the City nowadays due to different work schedules and other hectic hobbies. It was an honor for me to be their private photographer and take in their routine of a typical Sunday out in New Jersey. I am sure that I will one day come back to this mysteriously charming place, and if it’s just to see the skyline for the small fee of a PATH train ride.

Liberty Harbor is always worth seeing

For more infos on Liberty State Park, go here and here.
For more pictures on Beija, the beloved dog, go here.
For more pictures on Jersey City, go here.

9/11/2012: On Top of Manhattan

Today is the day. Today is a very special day. Not only for New York. Today is different for the rest of the world as well. There aren’t too many of these days, come to think about it. But for some reason everyone I’ve known can recall where they were when the catastrophe happened. Exactly on this date 11 years ago two airplanes piloted by Al Quaida crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center, causing both buildings to collapse and burying more than 3,000 victims in the shards of the unthinkable. The stories, the documentaries, the recapses – all of this took years of processing until the world finally knew the truth. Or rather the details of the circumstances.

I still remember when I heard about it. It was exactly 3:20 PM in Germany, when an announcement on the radio caught my attention. I was 14 back then, occupied with doing my homework at my desk. At first I couldn’t believe that the collision had indeed occurred. When I walked downstairs to our TV and saw the live pictures, it started sinking in that something horrible must have indeed happened. We still went to choir as if nothing special had come about. But that Tuesday will always be engraved in my memory.

And when I moved to New York, I was under the impression that this city must be holding this one day in a very special memory. Two years ago was my first 9/11 in New York. I was excited to walk through the streets and see what was going on. “What do you expect to see?” my former roommate asked me. “There will certainly not be a parade to commemorate the 3,000 people who died in the collision!” True, perhaps I had expected just that. A joyful parade or a mournful parade. Pretty much anything that involves a lot of people sharing their thoughts on the event.

I was severely disappointed. A band was playing at Bryant Park. The chapel in the Financial District had more than the usual amount of visitors. But that was pretty much it. No evening ceremony, no group of people hunched together, no national anthem. It could have been just another normal weekend day here in Manhattan. And then last year, even though I wasn’t here, my friend told me about unexciting occurrences happening throughout the city on the ten year anniversary. True, Obama paid Ground Zero a visit and opened up the 9/11 Memorial (read more about it here). A few press had gathered here and there. But still nothing too special.

I am starting to believe that people from outside of New York hold this day in different memory. They mourn it, they talk about it, they openly discuss what can be discussed from so far away. Everyone thinks that this city will make a big fuss out of that one day in September. But they were not here and the date is easy to forget if you are not surrounded by the ruins daily, when you are not close to the site of demolition.

Manhattan with the Freedom Tower at the far end

So today, while I was working and walking around, I started to realize: This city will never forget. And it is surely not ready to forgive. 9/11 is not held in thought publicly like Memorial Day or other sad occasions. It’s been 11 years. The deceased still have family and loved ones they left behind. The wounds of this particular date gape wide open, as was seen in personal pieces exhibited at the 9/11 Memorial. Or the heartbreaking engravings of the deceased at the two ponds.

People lost their husbands, their wives, their sons, their daughters, their fathers, their mothers, their siblings, their friends – in short: somebody who meant a lot to them. So while the rest of America updates their Facebook statuses with the national flag and tips its hat at the shocking occurrences and the yearly anniversary, New York is silently mourning. It is grieving the loss of not only the people but also the significant landmarks. The jobs and the dreams that were connected to the World Trade Center. The tallest buildings of the Big Apple, the Financial Twins, and Yamasaki’s most famous creations.

No, this city is not able to forget and, least to say, heal. Every year so far I have seen more and more ads when taking the subway. These advertisements picture people who have health problems because of the pollution done to the air. Asthma, panic attacks, minor intoxication – just a few of the smaller issues that have turned into bigger ones over the years. While the rest of the world shuts its eyes for 364 days of the year and remembers the day only once a year, New Yorkers have been living with the tragedy and its side effects ever since. Even people like me, who are not natives to the city and who haven’t been around when it happened, can feel that no one is in the mood to talk about when the topic arises.

View from the Observatory at the Empire State Building

So I went on top of the Empire State Building today. I wanted to see how the Freedom Tower fits into the Manhattan skyline and I wanted to take the City in on this exclusive day of the year. A few hundred other tourists thought the same, but I was not bothered. It was nice. And while I walked towards my apartment in Brooklyn, I saw the Freedom Tower point a very strong light beam into the sky. The blue ray illuminated everything. I couldn’t help but think that this is New York’s way of remembering 9/11: Through the dark there shines a light and touches everything and everyone around it. While this city has been touched and will be touched in further decades to come, it will never forget that one day in September when its two twins were crushed eternally.

Where were you when it happened?

The 9/11 Memorial [at Night]

This year has been a special year for all of those mourning the 9/11 victims. On September 11, 2011 the first official 9/11 Memorial has opened up on the site the World Trade Center Towers used to stand. While I had not known any of this until I read it in the news when I was still in Germany, I have been even more desperate to go as soon as I got back from my Eurotrip.

I first logged onto the ticketing web site at the end of September, hoping to find a way to enter the Memorial soon. My friends had mentioned it could take up to a few months until a slot becomes avail. The tickets are basically for free. When booking them, you have the option to donate 10 or 20 USD or any other value entered. Or you don’t have to donate a cent if you don’t like. After giving in the requested personal information (it’s name, phone number, and address), the system showed me that the first possible date to look at the landmark would be …. an entire month from then! That was after ignoring a few dates during the week, as I had to work on those days. So I literally booked my ticket ONE MONTH ahead of time and originally wanted check out the 9/11 Memorial on Oct 29. Which was exactly the day the first and so far only snow fall hit New York (yup, just around the Halloween weekend, read more here). How truly unfortunate for me! The month after this I dedicated my free weekends to room searching and looking at crappy apartments, so there was no real chance a visit could have worked out for me. I even almost forgot about my plans until last Monday, when I spontaneously secured a time slot for Friday 7 PM, less than a week from this date.

One of the few obstacles to the Memorial

Now, I already knew from two months ago that getting to the Memorial means zigzagging through a huge chunk of the Financial District. So I made sure to be there exactly on time. When getting to the Memorial entrance, I saw a huge amount of barricades built up, which most likely had been used during busier times, I have no doubt about this. Some teenagers were checking my tickets, making fun of my boots (“Is that real fur?” Morons!) until I arrived at the next group of memorial workers, who checked my ticket once more. Then over to an inside area resembling the security check of an airport. ”Take of all metal items and put your bag in this basket, please,” a security officer ordered. Right on, through the beeping frame, and on to the final stop: More employees who for the very last time stamped a star-like symbol onto my printout! Wheeew! The way from there to the Memorial takes a while, too. Guess I was lucky no queue was waiting, otherwise all of this would have taken four times as long.

The 9/11 Memorial consists of two large pools with a black hole inside (at least that is what it looked like at night.) I know this sounds bad, but the North and South pool are beautifully illuminated because of the light shining through the carved in names of the disaster victims. The pool is made up of waterfalls to the sides which blend into the still water on the ground. Names are written along the frame of the pool, making out the identified victims, who reach up to 3,000. I first walked around the South Pool, taking in the sights and the atmosphere. All these different names, the calm pond and the moving water fall, the dark hole in the middle – a very festive but also sad atmosphere I found. And all along, the Freedom Tower hovers over the scene. More buildings are meant to be built along the side of the Memorial, making out the new Financial Center of New York in the future.

Carved in names of victims

The Freedom Tower, tallest landmark building in New York as for now

I then went on to the North Pool. A museum is built on the side between both sites, but I am unsure what can be found inside. It looked so pretty, with its light shining from the inside. When I stood at the North Pool my eyes fell on the inscription of a woman. Helen F. and her unborn child, it read. This really took me aback. Overall, the entire experience at the former WTC was a very sad experience, bringing back the memory of the day when and how I had found about one of the biggest tragedies of the 21st Century.

North Pool

There were many cops at the memorial site of course, with watch dogs. A group of people was standing around them and asking them questions. I took this picture of two dogs, who must have been disturbed by the crowd (or their Master).
Then, on my way out, I walked past an illuminated tree. This tree was partly charcoal on one side. An employee was explaining how they had to fasten the metal ropes around it when Hurricane Irene swept through New York (read more here). A wreath made of flowers was put up on one side, in military manner.

The Museum on the side

The tree that had survived

Before exiting on the long walk back out, I entered the souvenir store, which you can’t miss when visiting the Memorial. There were a few items of victims and survivors built up for display in glass cases. I saw a fireman hat – the fireman himself had survived. Then a wallet with a 2-Dollar-bill. The story is beautiful: A 58-year-old man had proposed with this 2-Dollar-bill not too long before the tragedy (and gotten “yes” as an answer!). He kept it on him ever since. Sadly, he didn’t survive his trip to work 10 years ago and died on 9/11 – his personal items were restored among the ruins.

Fireman's hat
2 Dollar Souvenir and a heart-breaking story

What interests, yes, even fascinates me most about 9/11 are the stories the relatives of the victims have to tell. A short film described four life stories, which were put together in a five-minute-documentary. How heart-gripping this movie was! A boy who had lost his father. A wife who had lost her husband and finally remarried after 10 years. And many more peeks into the lives of people who have experienced an earth-shaking tragedy !
The documentary also showed what eventually is planned to become of the WTC site. New York is intending on building the aforementioned Financial Center around the pools. Trees are supposed to fill the distance between these pools and in the end become a forest, perhaps an oasis of mourn, peace, and quietness. It looked quite advanced on the graphics.

9/11 is such a sensitive topic. When I was in New York in 2010, I didn’t see much of a memorial service going on that day. I was even quite disappointed at how careless most people, including my former roommate, thought about the event. They just shrugged their shoulders and didn’t waste another thought on it. But then a local New Yorker told me about his time, when he had been in this City, at the very same day 10 years ago. How awful and uncertain the hours and days after the tragedy had been for everyone. How people were trying to get past the police barricades in Chelsea, because they lived 40 blocks away from the WTC. And how they had still smelled the smoke, dust, and filth in the air. When he had stuck out his hand to get a hold of flying pieces in the air, he saw it had been business papers. Shredded, burnt pieces, flying all the way from the Financial District up to Chelsea! And how eventually everyone had to deal with what happened in New York, how crucial it was to survival and to get on with life, to find solace in everyday activities. And some people are still fighting health problems nowadays. Asthma being the most harmless form. Yes, I can go on and on, but maybe I’ll save that for another post!

I will most likely revisit the 9/11 Memorial, this time during the day. Have you had the chance to go there yet?
Tell me how and when you found out about September 11, 2001!

[For more pictures on 9/11, go to A Picture Every Day!]