The Ballards - USA - Washington DC and New York


I visited Washington DC in late 1987 as a guest of a family friend who is English but lives in Virginia (overlooking, if you lean far enough out on her balcony, the Pentagon).
She kindly offered to put me up for a few days and we discovered a shared interest in travel photography (she is the original germinator of the seed of this website).

Washington is a city of contrasts: the fine, restored and beautifully maintained historic items on the Mall, including the White House, versus the high percentage of poor black people living in a ring around the more affluent white centre.

This is what I have noted in the USA: where there are poor people they are more likely to be poor black people.
This is at it's most pronounced in the South, because of the entrenched social attitudes (not just amongst the white folk) resulting from a history of slavery.
Quite how something that was abolished 150 years ago can have such a huge effect upon the country now escapes me, but it's unavoidable.
Having been departmental and Divisional manager in a large Corporate, I am very aware that in a work environment you cannot be less than professional and have to be colour-blind when recruiting and managing: I managed to recruit and manage people of all colours without prejudice - why can't others?

My kind friend took me to Bilbo Baggins, where we had what I can only describe as the most beautifully-cooked lunch I have, to this day, ever eaten (and I'm married to a Cordon Bleu trained chef, so I know what good food is).

We also visited the ...Cathedral, that they have been building since 19xx. The cathedral is on the same scale as the large 15th and 16th Century cathedrals in France and looks very similar, but is brand spanking new.
I can't believe that in America, of all places, and in the late 20th Century, of all secular ages, they are building a cathedral on this scale. The only equal I can imagine is La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and that's as much a work of art as a Cathedral.
It's as if America were trying to make up for it's inequalities and secularity by building this outsized offering to God.

I visited New York in early 1988 as a guest of some expat friends: Charlie and Fi Clark, who lived a couple of blocks down from Central Park in a beautiful apartment on the 22nd floor.

We packed a lot in to a long weekend: but my abiding impressions were of the intense cold caused by the funnelling effect of the wind through the canyons between the tall buildings, and the Blade Runner-like lack of direct sunlight at street level, even at midday.
The steam emerging from underground pipes is a well-known (from anyone who has watched Kojak) part of New York life, but the traffic and the crime wasn't like it was portrayed on the TV.

New Yorkers are efficient: they have a reputation for being rude, but in real life they are just adapted to living in a big city: they get on with their own lives and don't want to communicate with anyone else.
It's their way of coping with the crush of urban humanity they encounter constantly the moment they step out of their door. I wonder if Indians are similar?

My hosts, being English, existed in a social set entirely unconnected with anything American.
They could have chosen (although they didn't) to surround themselves entirely with British people, and to have no social contact with Americans.
Up to that point I had no concept of the size of the UK expat community in New York. The vast majority of them are in the finance community, the big surprise being that more Brits were not killed in the Trade Tower bombing of 11 Sep 2001.

All the stereotypes are there: the thrusting, arrogant Wall Street banker a la "greed... is good" Gordon Gekko; the homeless sleeping, wrapped up in newspapers, on the doorsteps of the big hotels and apartment blocks; the arrogant apartment block doormen in sharp uniform and peaked cap; the taxi drivers like spaced-out Christopher Lloyd in the series Taxi; the whistle-toting traffic cops, the befurred NYC lady shoppers with multiple poodles and stiletto heels.

I wasn't as shocked by the homeless as I thought I would be: there are as many living in London, and whilst New York is colder in the winter (I mean, if I was homeless, I'd go and be homeless in Florida, where at least I wouldn't have to worry about freezing to death at night, and could wash on the beach) these people are homeless for a reason, which is usually alcohol, gambling, drugs or mental illness.
You can have sympathy, but ultimately they are there through their own actions, not through anything I have done. Golders Green in London has beggars, as does the Underground, but if they can afford to run a dog, and to smoke, then they can hitch themselves up a rung. There are plenty of charitable organisations to help them, they just have to go half the way and commit to improving their lot.

Manhattan is not that big, and you can (Americans, of course, don't.....) walk around it. It's a bit of a hike from Wall Street to Central Park but it's not going to kill you. I saw people hailing taxi-cabs to go 200 yards......

The traffic wasn't as mind-numbing as I was led to believe, but there was no on-street parking anywhere, and 9/10 cars were taxis. And, of course, you had to cross the roads at the lights. And the lights had to be green, or you could be ticketed for Jaywalking.
How cute. And how ridiculous. If the road's clear, go.

The World Trade Centre Towers were stupendous: I did the tour and the views were magnificent. I still have the introductory leaflet (which is probably worth some money now the towers are down).

The Chrysler Building and the Empire State were wonderful monuments to 30s Art Deco, The Pan Am building (now the Met Life building following Pan Ams demise) a monument to the 60s hopefulness, and the fact that helicopters are not allowed to land on the roof any more a monument to those dashed hopes in the '70s.
In 1965 the roof was converted to a to a heliport for large helicopters to whisk travelers to and from the city's airports. New York Airways offered a seven minute flight to Kennedy Airport for $7 in helicopters that carried eight passengers. It was closed in 1968 because it was not profitable, but reopened in February 1977, only to close again three months later when the landing gear of a large, 30-passenger helicopter collapsed as passengers were about to board and one of its rotor blades broke off, killing four people on the heliport and a pedestrian on the street and crashed over the roof, ending the controversial, but incredibly exciting service. After that the helicopters were exiled to the East shore, at ground level. Which is a huge shame as only now are they building a decent high-speed link out to JFK.

I did the Statue of Liberty, of course. However, this is a classic example of imagining something bigger than it actually is.
Everybody has seen films of the statue towering over New York, but up close it's shhh... actually not that big...

And of course the obligatory helicopter tour.
Well, I had to do this.
I picked up a JetRanger from the Lower East Side (that's "Lower", as in right on what passes for a beach on Manhattan Island).
We got an extensive view of Manhattan, Central Park and the Business District. What they don't tell you in the books is the staggering size of New York City: it's a lot bigger than London, and spreads its tentacles far out in to the countryside.
Of course, out there it's not called New York, but it's all part of the same city.

Eventually I was deposited back on a road seemingly (staggeringly) devoid of yellow taxis. After a few minutes of waiting, and feeling pretty stupid and not a little vulnerable hefting $1,000 worth of camera, a long, white stretch limo stops and the driver offers me a cut-price limo ride back to Central Park. The only time I have ever ridden in a Limo.....

I also travelled on the subway, which is so much better than the Tube in London it's ridiculous. New York's subways are, by comparison, faster, more reliable, roomier, more frequent, cleaner (don't believe the propaganda), but certainly more covered in graffiti. It covers huge swathes of the city (every tried to get a Tube South of the Thames?), and links very efficiently to other forms of mass transport.