I spent last week far away from the clean mountain air in Macon County when I travelled to New York City for a mini-vacation. Although last week marked the fourth time I had travelled up north in the last three years, it was the first time that I really saw the city. I wasn't dazed by the lights and the clutter of the city like I had been during my previous trips, but instead, I kind of had a feel for it all. Instead of walking around with my head thrown back searching for parcels of sky that could be seen for a second between the buildings, I experienced the culture and was able to see a side of the city I think most people miss out on.
I travelled to New York with my better half and best friend, Andrew, who had to go there for business. I didn't just go to spend a romantic few days away from Franklin, but also to visit with my oldest and dearest friend Shannon, whom I have known for the last 17 years of my life. Shannon moved to New York after we graduated high school and has lived there ever since.
The first night of our trip, we stayed in a remarkable hotel off the backside of Times Square called The Algonquin. The Algonquin is the oldest hotel in operation in New York City and is rich with literary history. The Algonquin, which began as an intimate hotel with a red brick and limestone facade, first opened its doors in Manhattan, providing the singular environment of inspiration that spawned the creation of the famed The New Yorker magazine.
When it first opened at the turn on the 20th century, the two most popular restaurants of the era – Sherry’s and Delmonico’s – were within walking distance; five of New York’s great clubs – Yale, Harvard, Bar Association, New York Yacht, and the Century – were neighbors. The Hippodrome, advertised as “the world’s largest playhouse,” opened across the street, as did a number of notable theaters.
From its inception, manager (and later owner) Frank Case created a vision for The Algonquin as New York’s center of literary and theatrical life. His enduring fascination with actors and writers led him to extend them credit, in the process luring such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and John Barrymore. In a time where women were considered second class citizens and had little to no rights in society, The Algonquin was an innovator in paving the way for women to travel which encouraged famed women to flock to the hotel. Over the years, these women have included Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Helen Hayes, Erica Jones and Maya Angelou.
Three Nobel laureates visited the hotel on a regular basis, including Sinclair Lewis (who offered to buy the hotel), Derek Walcott, and most memorably William Faulkner, who drafted his Nobel Prize acceptance speech at The Algonquin in 1950.
In the premiere issue of Historic Traveler magazine, The Algonquin was named one of “America’s Ten Great Historic Hotels.” In 1987, The Algonquin was designated a New York City landmark, and in 1996, it was designated a literary landmark.
While guests at the Algonquin, Andrew and I stayed in The New Yorker Suite, named for the influence the hotel had in the magazine's inception. With artwork of the streets of Manhattan at the turn of the century adorning the walls, the hotel provided the first day of our trip with an overwhelming sense of history and purpose that I had only dreamed of. I have wanted to be a writer since before I could talk. I haven't ever wanted to do anything else, so to be within the same walls of some of the greatest literary geniuses to ever put pen to paper, was inexplainable. To pass through the same hallways once frequented by William Faulker and Gertrude Stein, was awe inspiring, to say the least.
Another highlight of the week was when Andrew and I were joined by his lovely mother Debbie for a trip on the Staten Island Ferry. This was Debbie's first trip to the Big Apple, so it was wonderful to experience the city with her for her impromptu post-birthday celebration.
The ferry, which is used by locals as free public transportation between Manhattan and Staten Island, is a tourist’s dream. Instead of paying anywhere between $20 and $40 per person to take a crowded boat around the Statue of Liberty, the Staten Island Ferry is a free 30 minute ride that showcases a breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Brooklyn Bridge, all while offering the cheapest drinks in the entire city. The boat ride was a neat way to to get a perspective of the Statue of Liberty in the foreground and New Jersey and New York City nestled behind the mighty icon, welcoming all who grace the shores, just as it was intended to do when first received by the Americans from the French.
After our boat tour, we travelled down to ground zero and stood on the door steps of the greatest tragedy of my generation and one of the most memorable moments in our history. Arguably the quietest place in the entire city, just a little more than a week before the 11th Anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was an eery feeling to be on the very sidewalk where people stood as time stood still and watched as planes struck the World Trade Center towers. Although it was full of people, no one said a word as we stood there looking around. It was unfathomable to think that 11 years ago to the day I walked up and down that sidewalk, people went about their days with no idea of what was being planned against our nation.
When the attacks happened I was in eighth grade. I sat in my math class in complete confusion looking at the television as I watched the second plane crash into the towers. I didn’t even know what a terrorist was. Little did I know, terrorist, a word I had never even heard, would become everyday conversation for the next 11 years. The only thoughts running through my head were selfish and immature. I was worried about if my volleyball game that night would be cancelled. I looked over at Shannon at the desk beside me and saw tears running down her face. Most of Shannon’s family still lived in New York. The classroom door flew open and Shannon’s mother, who taught at the school, grabbed her up and without explanation they left. It wasn’t until days later I realized that Shannon’s grandfather had worked at the World Trade Center, but by the grace of God, he had retired the very day before the attacks and was home safe.
My mother picked me and my sisters up from school that day and the fear and emptiness that plagued her face is still a constant memory. We weren’t allowed to watch the news but instead did what so many other families did that day, clung to our families, to our churches, with no certainty for what was coming. Even though I was thousands of miles away from New York that day, and had no concept of the implications of the attacks, my heart hurt. And 11 years later, standing on the streets where the first pieces of rubble smashed our perfect reality, was still as devastating and life altering as the very moments it first happened.
Although the Memorial Wall carved into the side of the FDNY Ten House, the fire station across the street from ground zero, depicts the tragedy beautifully and respectfully, most of us who visit the wall will never be able to really know what it was like in the city that day. The original list and photos of the fallen firefighters and policemen lies behind a piece of glass, and even though the sun has faded it, one can't help but take a moment to stand in silence to remember those who never hesitated but instead answered the call of duty to defend our nation.
The new towers are near completion and even with the unfinished construction, it is evident that what they represent is stronger than ever before and embodies a sense of prevailing despite all that happened since that fateful day nearly 11 years ago.
Editor's note: For the second half of Brittney's historical New York Trip, see next week's issue of the Macon County News.