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

 


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