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Travel Blog: Downtown USA

We recently visited the USA for the first time in many years, primarily to enjoy the experience of travelling on one of the america’s great trans continental train journeys (see Riding the California Zephyr). We also spent some time in five major cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Each has its own distinctive character but there were some features common to all five:

Dramatic skylines

Of course  downtown areas of American cities have long been characterised by impressive clusters of skyscraper buildings. For European visitors such as ourselves, arriving in New York and confronting its towering skyline is still a spectacular sight, especially at night. We were fortunate to be able to enjoy part of the this skyline from our bedroom window, the highlight of which was the Chrysler building, the world’s tallest building when it was built in 1931 and still the world’s tallest brick building.

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Chicago has always struggled to match the majesty of New York’s skyline, especially the status of having the world’s tallest building (twice during the 1970’s) but it still manages to impress

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Anish Kapoor’s Cloud  Gate sculpture known locally as ‘The Bean’

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The Chicago River

Chicago also offers spectacular rooftop night time views to rival that Of New York’s Empire State Building

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New York looking to Freedom Tower and Lower Manhattan

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Views from Chicago’s Hancock Tower (now called 360 Observatory), the latter picture showing the Navy Pier and Lake Michigan

Neon Lights

Leaving aside the advertising overkill in New York’s Times Square, neon lighting is still very striking in American cities. We found this especially true of California whose film industry has done so much to help create the distinctive atmospheric (and frequently very dark/noirish) mood associated with neon e.g. Sweet Smell of Success, Blade Runner and Vertigo (see movie scenes below)

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Elmwood Cinema, Berkeley

In Los Angeles, even some of the metro stations use neon as part of the station identity

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Of course some of the most famous neon landmarks can be found in Hollywood

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The intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine St.

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The infamous Frolic Room which dates from the 1930s

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A neon lit film poster on Sunset Boulevard.

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A choice of beer

Prior to arriving in Los Angeles, we stayed in Pismo Beach which felt almost like slipping back into an early 1960’s surfer movie.

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Sometimes, passing a late night urban cafe/restaurant could seem like you were witnessing a scene from an Edward Hopper painting, as in this picture from Chicago’s Rosebud restaurant.

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Public Transport

Despite the fact most American cities primarily cater for the motor car, it is still arguably much more interesting to navigate large cities like New York, and even much of Los Angeles, by public transport. In New York this includes the best free ride in town, the Staten Island Ferry

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Otherwise, the best way to visit New York’s urban highlights is via its much maligned subway system. A few stops will take you through some very diverse neighbourhoods.

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Chicago’s best ride is the CTA loop, an elevated subway track which provides a great view of the downtown area

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San Francisco is known for its cable cars designed to cope with some of the city’s very steep gradients, but these are purely for tourists. Just as attractive are its fleet of trams many of which date from the 1930’s.

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Los Angeles also has an historic ‘tramway’ the Angels Flight funicular. Built in 1901, it was designed to climb the ascent up to Bunker Hill. Sadly, we discovered that it ceased operating in 2013 for ‘health and safety’ reasons (which meant we had to navigate the very steep climb to our hotel on foot).

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The Angels Flight funicular

Finally, New York and Los Angeles boast two of America’s most beautiful railway stations, Grand Central and Union Station respectively.

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Glorious libraries

In a country with seemingly minimal commitment to public services,  the grandeur of these two railway stations is somewhat surprising. It was almost just as surprising to discover some of America’s great American city libraries during our visit.

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New York Public Library

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Boston Public Library

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Chicago’s magnificent old Central Library, now the City Cultural Centre

Art Deco

Despite the demolition of many classic buildings from the art deco era, thankfully it was still possible to find some remaining gems in all the cities we visited. In New York, one of the standout examples is the Chrysler building dating from 1931

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Chrysler Building exterior and lobby (below)

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The 1929 Chanin Building in New York

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Empire State building 1931

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Chicago’s Carbide and Carbon Building 1929

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Los Angeles 1928 Oviatt Building, Cicada Restaurant

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Los Angeles Subway Terminal building 1925, part of the city’s first underground subway station

The ever changing city

All the cities we visited seemed to be undergoing significant change and renewal. New York, in particular, was a very different city from our previous visit in the 1980’s. The gentrification of Lower Manhattan is now virtually complete. Google has taken over the Port Authority Building and chauffeur driven luxury 4 x 4 cars sit outside Prada in SoHo.

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Thankfully, a few outposts from the heyday of Greenwich Village have survived, such as the Bitter End Club, where Bob Dylan played in the early 1960’sdsc05115

In midtown Manhattan, Hudson Yards is the sight of the largest ever American construction project. It is a mini city being built on stilts above a huge railway yard (rather than a lagoon like Venice).

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Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the development of the once rather rundown downtown area is still continuing with the recent addition of two striking adjacent 21st century arts buildings, the  Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, and the recently opened Broad Art Gallery, which contains the impressive modern art collection of Eli Broad, an art loving businessman.

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Disney Concert Hall

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The Broad

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Inside the Broad

Alongside the obvious wealth of much of the downtown areas, it was difficult not to notice the large amount of homelessness, especially in California (where the weather is not so severe in Winter). They might be propped up at a tram stop or have left their belongings in a supermarket trolley. It was clear that many were in urgent need of mental health care

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San Francisco

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Los Angeles

Being election time, it was encouraging to see that Proposition HHH, a proposal to raise $1.2 billion to support care of the homeless was on the ballot (and was indeed passed)

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Other proposals seemed less charitable

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Seen outside Los Angeles City Hall

Back in new York, we witnessed a lone protester trying to draw attention to the downside to one of the presidential candidates. Sadly, very few people seemed to be listening.

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A Tale of Two Cuisines

One of the great pleasures provided by American cities is to sample the differing culinary choices on offer. In New York we stopped by the legendary  Katz’s Delicatessen in the Lower East Side, which has been serving Jewish food since 1888. It did not disappoint in terms of atmosphere, quality and portion size.

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In sharp contrast, the eating experience in the Venice Beach’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard (Los Angeles) was distinctly contemporary –  from the condiments to the wacky ice cream flavours on offer. dsc06421dsc06424

If the food wasn’t healthy enough then you could always nip along to the beach and tone up your muscles.

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Movie scenes

American cities have been the location for countless films. Here’s a small sample of the many locations we came across (or more often, sought out)

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Two locations from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, San Francisco

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The Bradbury Building, Los Angeles, location for Blade Runner and many other films

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Touch of Evil mural, Venice beach

 

Travel Blog: Riding the California Zephyr

Crossing America by train is a superb way to enjoy some of the country’s most spectacular scenery as well as an opportunity to get to know some fascinating fellow travellers sharing the epic journey from Chicago to San Francisco.

The Zephyr originally ran from 1949 until 1970 when it was withdrawn due to falling passenger numbers. Amtrak, the American rail network revived it in 1983, and it still takes the same 52 hours it required in 1949 to traverse the nearly 2500 miles of the route to the Bay Area of California. 

Here is a a more detailed map

We started our journey at Chicago’s magnificent Union station, the location for many famous films such as The Untouchables, Dark Knight and Blade Runner

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On leaving Chicago we quickly moved into the flat cornfields of Illinois. The train made periodic scheduled stops which sometimes provided a chance to alight and stretch the legs such as in Galesburg.

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An old preserved pacific steam locomotive Galesburg railway museum

Despite the many miles of prairies and small towns of Illinois and Iowa, there was a range of interesting sights along the way, such as election posters and small town high streets which had seen more prosperous times.

A milestone on the journey was crossing the Mississippi River in Burlington Iowa.

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After our first evening meal, it was soon time to retire to our compartment for the night which involved converting our seats into bunk beds – not the most spacious sleeping accommodation but all part of the fun. It required quite careful organisation to maximise the limited available space. The bedtime experience is certainly unique, especially the additional roll you get from being in the upper deck of the carriage at the tail of the train. The continuous blast of the train horn during the night as it roared through the mid-west added an almost 1950’s cinematic touch to the ride. In case you want to share the sound    take a listen.

Our first night’s sleep ended as we arrived at Denver’s Union station at dawn. It was quite magical pulling up at the platform just as the sky turned pink on a chilly morning at 7.00 am. We emerged for a 30 minute break to admire the recently restored station which was buzzing with commuters rushing to grab their morning ‘artisan’ espressos. Judging from the station, it certainly justified Denver’s reputation as a thriving hi-tech and financial centre, the ‘Wall St of the Rocky Mountains’.

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Climbing through Colorado, the scenery was becoming very attractive as we snaked though the Rocky Mountains (including 33 tunnels), crossed the Continental divide at over 9000 feet, and began travelling alongside the Colorado River via some spectacular canyons. dsc05647dscf4013dscf4020dscf4034

dsc05665 To enjoy such scenery from both sides of the train we took a seat in the observation car

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Apart  from the beautiful landscape,  the most memorable aspect of the journey was our encounters with fellow passengers, whether in the observation car or during mealtimes, when the choice of sharing the dinner table was left to the catering manager.

Our first such encounter involved a man who without much prompting, began pouring out his life story about the rise and fall of his rental business (he ended up in jail) and  which climaxed with him tearfully rueing the fact his sister had financially (and morally) betrayed him whilst he was in jail, and he was only now recovering from bankruptcy and depression.Another  passenger casually revealed she had just left her man in Alabama (‘a bad situation’), was carrying all her belongings in a suitcase, and starting a new life in Oregon. Aside from these rather down beat stories,  we met many delightful passengers from very diverse backgrounds, the only common factor being the joy of travelling by long distance train.

Come the need for rest or privacy, we could retreat to our compartment and bed, but the hardy Amish family in the picture spent the whole journey at their observation car table.

Our last two stops in Colorado included Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. The last call on the notice board (in the second picture) had to be taken seriously for those passengers stepping off for a short break. We later learned we had left one passenger behind in Reno – a regular occurrence according to our conductor.

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Grand Junction

As the sun lowered and we crossed over the state border into Utah, the view from the train became quite riveting. It began to feel like the wild west.

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As the sun set over the Utah desert we passed by two largely abandoned towns, Cisco and Thompson Springs, which had featured in the film Thelma and Louise. One of those moments when it was frustrating not to be able to get off and explore.

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Cisco

During our second night we stopped at Salt Lake City, and then travelled across the salt flats before entering Nevada. Breakfast was served as we pulled into Reno. Before long we had crossed the state boundary into California. Our first two stops were Truckee and Colfax

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Truckee

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Colfax

At this stage an Amtrak employee provided commentary (from a script) as we traversed the Sierra Nevada and passed through the Donner Pass. Not everyone was fully engaged with his revelations.

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By now we were a little punch drunk on the scenery but just as intrigued by the range of passengers we were meeting – a hirsute delivery driver regaled us with his tales of panning for gold in the hills, an activity I assumed had long since been abandoned.

After a largely neglected lunch – the rather bland Amtrak menu had become a little repetitive, we soon descended into Sacramento, the state capital, followed finally by the long coastal skirting of the San Francisco Bay Area. Compared to the grandeur of Chicago’s Union Station, it was somewhat anti-climatic to arrive not at San Francisco but the neighbouring small city of Emeryville, amazingly nearly an hour ahead of schedule.

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Dollicia, our wonderful attendant

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A little exhausted, but still feeling a residue of euphoria from our memorable journey, we were glad to be met by friends, and could soon enjoy watching the sun set over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge whilst we sipped our beer across the bay in Berkeley.

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