I’ve just entered the US green card lottery. Wish me luck! Apparently the chances of winning are around 0.5% – not bad odds, I think. There’s always been something quite mythical about the land that is home to the American dream, a country that promises liberty and justice for all, where cheerleaders date quarterbacks and customer service actually exists.
There’s a classic Swedish book series called Utvandrarna, The Emigrants, by Vilhelm Moberg, a series of four books telling the story of Karl-Oskar and Kristina as they take their family away from the hunger and poverty of 19th century rural Sweden to the land of soft white bread and fields that actually yield crops in Minnesota, where they build a new life. The story was made into a fabulous musical by Björn and Benny of ABBA fame, performed in concert form in the US, though I’m not sure how well it translates. In fact, I just walked past a newsagent where a tabloid newspaper (Aftonbladet) had the headline: “Find your rich relatives in the USA”, citing the statistic that over four million Americans have Swedish roots. In my own family history, we have just one person who made the journey to America: my grandmother’s uncle Olle, who crossed the Atlantic in the 1920s but later died without children. More recently, in the 1980s my youngest aunt immigrated to Texas – crazy cowboy – and she’s since spawned two beautiful youths who say “y’all” and know how to line dance.
Millions of immigrants entered the port of New York via Ellis Island between 1892, when the Immigration Station officially opened, and 1924, when the island instead became a detention centre for those who would not be allowed to enter the United States. Almost half of the US population will have at least one person in their family history to have come through Ellis Island. Ellis Island opened to visitors in 1976 and I visited the museum on my first visit to the US in 1990, but during my latest visit it was closed for restoration following the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
The Statue of Liberty would have been the first sight as the ships from Europe entered the harbour. Given it’s been 23 years (WHAT?! Wow I’m old) since I last made the boat journey across to the lady in question, I decided to pay her another visit. I think I was very lucky to be visiting New York in the small window between the reopening of the Statue of Liberty following Hurricane Sandy and its closure as a result of the current government shutdown. Although I had originally planned to climb all the way up to the crown (it’s not possible to access the balcony round the torch since 1916), I found that my claustrophobia made this less than tempting and anyway I had already done the climb back in 1990. I did go up to the pedestal, though, for great views across to Manhattan and New Jersey. Designed by the American architect Richard Morris Hunt, the pedestal actually makes up half of the total height of the Statue of Liberty, although the true icon is the lady herself, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi as a gift from the people of France.
The Empire State Building is another symbol of the Manhattan skyline. Completed in 1931 and built in art deco style, it’s been identified by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. It’s an iconic building in popular culture from giant gorillas to romantic rendez-vous (how do you pluralise that?!). The standard lighting of the tower is white, but the colours change for various reasons such as anniversaries, campaigns and Broadway shows. Unlike the Statue of Liberty, you can take a lift the whole way up, avoiding claustrophobic and heart attack-inducing staircases to get 360-degree views over the island of Manhattan (though the lift is so fast that my ears felt the change in pressure, taking less than a minute to reach the 86th floor). More than 30 people have attempted suicide from the 102-storied building, and Wikipedia tells the tragically hilarious tale of the two that were unsuccessful (the individuals in question survived after landing just one floor down from the 86th floor from which they had jumped). The Disneyland queuing system must be a nightmare during peak times, but I came early in the morning and walked straight through. Somewhat ridiculously, to my mind, they take your photo as you pass through, against a blue screen that puts you in front of a night view of the building, and charge you 20 dollars for the honour of taking it home at the end of your visit (they print every single one, which means that those people who do buy the photo are also paying for all the other discarded ones).
The biggest change I noticed since visiting these two tourist spots 23 years ago was the increased security. You feel like you’re at an airport, and it makes for an even longer queuing time, though of course it’s understandable these days. Oh, and I’d like to think my fashion sense has improved a little…
The practical bit:
Visiting the Statue of Liberty
Tickets to the Statue of Liberty can be bought via Statue Cruises. There are three types of tickets:
(1) Reserve only (access to the island)
(2) Reserve with monument access (island plus lift up to the top of the pedestal)
(3) Reserve with crown access (island plus lift up to the pedestal plus stairs up to the crown)
There is a free audio tour available, but I must admit that I found it hard to concentrate and ended up just wandering round the statue without the narration.
*Note: It is currently not possible to visit Liberty Island due to the government shutdown. You can, however, still do a sightseeing tour by boat*
Visiting the Empire State Building
There are even more options to visit the Empire State Building, including express tickets to avoid the queues. To avoid both waiting and paying extra for express, the website recommends visiting during off-peak hours, 8-10am or around 3pm. Online tickets are valid for a year from the date of purchase.
(1) Main deck only (access to the 86th floor)
(2) Main deck plus top deck (access to the 86th floor and the 102nd floor)