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America 2010
My travel experiences in America started in January 1997 and I have since visited five more times including the last three years consecutively. Art, particularly painting and sculpture, has been the principle motivator for my visits. American collectors had (and still have) the money and an apparent philanthropic imperative to collect the best from all periods and ultimately share it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (The Met), The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) again in NY and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC are treasure troves of the best artistic endeavours of the human race. Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles all have important collections as do many other American cities and often a donor has not only given the art works but also a building to house them.
I will not be discussing art to any great extent here but do please check the art pages in the website for discussions on favourite pictures.
1997- January: New York
You probably shouldn’t visit New York in January. During my January the ambient temperature rarely came above zero and though I was blessed with clear blue skies a biting wind swept 5th Av clear of all who had no reason to be there.
My visit made an uncertain start due to bad weather as we approached JFK airport. Our captain had to decide whether to land or accept a re-route to Los Angeles on the other side of the country. As LA was certainly not the preferred destination of any of us he landed the 747 in near-zero visibility on a runway covered with ice and snow cementing my faith forever in British Airways and their pilots.
My hotel was in downtown Manhattan on 14th street, near 8thAv. Mostly I walk when in a new city and on the first day I noticed a street dweller sitting on the footpath at the corner of 8th Ave and 14th St. He sat in the snow and ice with his few possessions around him asking for money which most passers by gave and he had a special friend whom I saw with him most mornings; she took care of his immediate needs. Tragically, a few mornings later I rounded the corner to come upon a bevy of police and paramedics surrounding the man still sitting on the footpath but now frozen to death. The main logistical problem it seemed was not that the man had died but that his hand was stuck to the footpath by ice and before they could move him they had to unstick it. His primary career, excluded from all this, stood away on the other side of the street her lined, sad face a mosaic of reproachful anger and grief.
As I walked around NY in 1997 I was struck by several things, firstly how dreadfully unhealthy most of the natives seemed. So often I found my self following someone who took up most of the footpath and still feeding as they went. They were sustained by an average of one pretzel stall and one hot dog stall per block and American blocks are not as big as ours. The other salutary feature of being amongst the population was a recently released report on TV which told us that an average one in five Americans went about armed. During my stay I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, caught the Ellis Island Ferry as a cheap way to see the Statue of Liberty and walked much of Fifth Av. St Thomas’ Church is in 5th Av. Here was a little piece of England with an English Vicar (bearing a strong resemblance to Sir John Gielgud) a choir of boys and men which would rival any UK cathedral and an Evensong service which you could hear anywhere in England. It is the “Establishment” Episcopal church and if you are in NY don’t miss it. The current Organist and Choirmaster is John Scott, who came to them from St Pauls London. Just across the road is St Patrick’s Roman Cathedral much patronised by the Kennedys.
Of course I spent much of my time in the major galleries and it was on this trip that I began to appreciate the depth of understanding needed to form the compact between viewer and artist if a picture is to have real meaning.
2000 September: Los Angeles and San Francisco
My second trip was to the west coast and it was on this visit that I began to notice the two great divides in contemporary American society. Originally the country was socially split by the demographics of the civil war. Now it seems one demographic split is east-west as west coast cities with their closeness to Mexico and South America and warmer, drier climate have evolved differently compared to the big east coast cities which retain much of their European origins. The other demarcation is the religious conservatives and more liberal thinkers. Many Americans are quite rightly very concerned about the way their country is polarising based on the interpretation of the Word of God.
LA is a difficult city and I find myself listening intently to those who say they enjoy being there to see what they enjoy. Yes, the County Art Museum is very good indeed and there are beaches and Hollywood and Disneyland. But there is also a sprawling, largely flat city in which the motor car reigns supreme. The walker can find himself on the wrong side of a river of traffic with no obvious way to get across to a visible yet completely unattainable destination. Walking has not really caught on in LA and often as I walked the footpaths (sidewalks in American) I was the only person visible for hundreds of metres either way. “Your Walkin!?” was always expressed with surprise sometimes even concern by those of whom I sought direction. The bus service is ubiquitous but not so easy to follow.
Whilst in LA this first time I confined myself mainly to the County Art Museum and the new Getty museum which sits atop its own mountain well out of town. The Getty is an extraordinary and brilliant building. It was purpose built to hold the painting collection, early French furniture and some of the sculpture collected by the reclusive Getty. It extends the display space of the original Getty Museum nearer the coast and also has an attached research institute. The preferred building material was Carrara marble imported expensive slab by expensive slab from Italy. Most Michelangelo sculpture is from Carrara marble. A mountain top was removed for the one billion dollar building and the finished structure dominates its surroundings; the structure is up so high the northern view takes you almost to the border with Oregon whilst looking south you fancy you can see Mexico. It fulfils its purpose superbly. You navigate around separate buildings each devoted to parts of the collection. There is as much to see outside as inside on your first visit as the design of the gallery leads the eye to the best views as well as complements the art on display.
On a more commonplace note, I did see a big difference in the quality of the food supply on the west coast compared to the east coast and a consequent diminution in the sizes of people.
San Francisco is a quite different proposition to LA. Firstly there is a very efficient light rail and tramway system augmented by cable car so getting around is easy. It is hilly and has a cooler climate than LA in fact a rather forbidding mist comes down from the hills most late afternoons. The flower-power SF of the 60s has evolved into a socially-concerned, environmentally-conscious, people-friendly easy place to visit. I enjoyed the Modern Art museum and the Veterans’ museum which shows more conservative work. You walk around SF even at night feeling welcome and safe. The airport is smaller and more manageable than LA which because it is the western seaboard’s principle arrival place is huge and complicated. Again I noticed an improvement in the food supply over NY.
 July 2002: New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC
Two thousand and two was a most significant time to be in NY as 9-11 had happened only months earlier. The city was beginning to emerge from its state of incredulity and America was coming to terms with no longer being invincible. This time I was travelling with a friend- the only time in my travel life when I have done so as I usually travel solo. Andrew and I had booked into a YMCA in mid-town Manhattan. And here I must tell you that there are two travel things which I will never do again; be in Manhattan in July (far too hot) and stay in a YMCA. I quickly decided that YMCAs are for younger, more socially pliant people who can tolerate noise, shared bathrooms and a wide variety of guests. NY is appallingly hot in high summer- a complete surprise after the sub-zero temperatures of my previous visit-and it never cools down. So great is the heat storage capacity of the buildings and infrastructure that night simply sees the release of heat into the atmosphere, maintaining the temperatures of the day. Our room in the YM was two shower cubicles in size with two bunks, one above the other and the window was taken up with a large air-conditioning unit which though it provided relief from the heat operated with the acoustics of a Boeing 747. Communication was possible only by hand signals. Our TV came sans remote control and since Andrew is a TV fanatic my view of him from the lower bunk was restricted to an arm with attached hand frequently prodding at the control panel to change channels.
We triumphed over adversity though and had eight fulfilling days in NY in two four-day stints. I spent most of my time in the galleries this time adding in the Guggenheim and the Whitney. We visited the aircraft carrier Intrepid which is moored in the Hudson and constitutes a very fine war museum for NY. We took a boat trip around Manhattan Island, observing a minute's silence as we motored past the World Trade Centre site: well most of us did, a group of French school children kept up their litany of chatter and socialising; 2002 was before the Ipod brought down its curtain of silence.
Our big statement though was to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge on July the 4th. The press had carried reports that another terrorist attack could occur on Independence Day and a likely target was the iconic bridge. We decided to take our chance and to demonstrate a certain puckish defiance by making rude gestures towards the east as we crossed each way. We were not subjected to terrorist attack and apart from a substantial force of police, security personnel and a group of English tourists we had the bridge to ourselves. No Americans were encountered. Of course it could just have been the locals demonstrating their dislike of walking but it also could have been the reaction of an apprehensive population. Two other 9-11 legacies were also obvious: actually getting to see the site of the attack was made as difficult as possible by the city authorities, not for security reasons I suspect as much as an unwillingness to have strangers see the destruction, and nearly every fire station carried signs asking that no more flowers be placed outside the door as the fire fighters had found their presence a hindrance to the process of “moving on”.
I had no trouble with food this trip as Andy, being Asian, insisted on our dining at China Town venues which served healthy slimming- sized serves and fresh food.
We travelled to DC by AMTRAK train. Now Business Class AMTRAK is both wonderful and cheap and deposits you already downtown near your hotel thus negating the vicissitudes of airport transfers. It is strongly recommended. You also see some of the country as you travel.
On the way to DC we stopped off at Philadelphia for a few days. My enduring memories are of a very fine art gallery, another set of “The Burghers of Calais” by Rodin (we have an edition of the same work in Canberra) as well as an edition of his famous statue “The Thinker”. PH is an interesting city having close connections with the initial settlement of the continent by Europeans. Again we ate mostly in China Town to avoid the worst excesses of American Food. Our hotel (luxury compared to the NY YMCA) provided breakfast but it was an American breakfast so donuts with chocolate icing and waffles with maple syrup and “coffee”. I am still amazes me that in a country where coffee is almost the national drink it can be so bad. We are spoiled here by the legacy of the Europeans who came to us after the Second World War.
In DC we went to the National Gallery of Art- America’s national gallery. Like all good National Galleries admission is free which encourages multiple visits. The Mall which joins The Capitol building at one end to the Lincoln memorial at the other, via the Washington Monument, is the location of many of the Smithsonian Institute museums. The Flight and Space museum for example celebrates American technology showing moon and space vehicles, their launching rockets as well as vintage and historically significant aircraft. You could spend days in The Mall and plenty of visitors take advantage of what is on offer. The Museum of American History there is said to be the country’s most visited exhibition space.
Mostly we travelled around on The Metro which provided my first experience of a ‘smart card’ ticket system. I was impressed with DC. Rather like Canberra in many ways: a city whose function is the business of government. However due to 9-11 it is no longer possible to visit The Capitol or get close to the White House. Indeed on our trip security officials prevented proximity with any sensitive site including the Pentagon guarded by Armoured Personnel Carriers crewed by zealous young soldiers who
turned us away. The site of the Pentagon attack could only be viewed from a distant hill. We visited Arlington Cemetery and made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Kennedy graves.
We then flew back to Australia from NY via Japan flying over Alaska JAL aircraft have two cameras posted, one looking straight down and one showing what’s ahead, and these provide a very different view than that afforded by the windows especially from the nose camera on landing. However the 30 hour trip involving a five-hour wait at Narita airport and a transfer at Sydney airport just after Ansett had failed made the return journey a nightmare. From then on I either avoided Economy class seats in aeroplanes or included breaks in the journey.
May 2008: San Diego, WashingtonDC and Chicago.
Move on to 2008 and after a six year break I again visit the USA. What a difference six years has made to the food scene. The USA is now more collectively aware of its addiction to food, more particularly unhealthy food. Now I can buy fresh fruit and healthy soups, there is not quite so much sugar and salt casually added to prepared meals and there is a noticeable decrease in the average size of a rear view. Also I have a friend to visit in San Diego; my former parish priest at St Marks Fitzroy is now Parish Priest of All Saints San Diego. I make the journey from LA to SD by AMTRAK and attend church on Sunday as well as spending half a day exploring the Midway- another US navy aircraft carrier museum and easily the best I have seen, I am shown over the ship by a former navy pilot who flew operations from Midway over Vietnam. The Midway saw service in the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam and is one of the navy’s longest-serving vessels. Interestingly our guide all invited us to sit in the captain’s chair on the bridge but declined to do so himself saying “that’s his chair and I don’t sit in it”. The San Diego Art Museum is certainly worth a visit as is the nearby Timken Museum set up by a private collector who wished to give his collection to the people but retain some control over how it was exhibited. There is also a museum of flight and a car museum. Both are worth visiting.
SD is on the pacific. The bay is home to extensive US navy flight installations and provides mooring for many navy ships including the latest vessels which have no right angles in their constructions to reduce their radar “footprint”. I also saw a fully-operational nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sitting quietly alert in the bay with every antennae rotating and every other defence device it has operating. Such ships are always at war insofar as they will be amongst the first targets in a nuclear conflict. Our sight-seeing vessel was kept well away by floating booms and aggressively patrolling security boats.
I then flew to Washington DC arriving at Reagan Airport which early visitors to DC might have known as the Washington City Airport. Reagan is right on a Metro train line so fitted the requirement of easy access to the city. My hotel was just over the border in Virginia in a predominantly Black American area and it was there that I first heard sounds of hope that black, democratic Mr Obama might rise to the greatest political office in the land. At that time he was facing off with Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination and since it was obvious that the Democrats were going to win the 2008 election both were careful not to over denigrate the other as it was clear that one would be president and the other a senior member of the administration.
The USA in 2008 was a singularly depressed place. George W Bush was looking ever more someone who was barely coping with the demands of office. The Iraq war was seen by most as a mistake which by then was costing the country dozens of killed and injured a week. Unemployment was obvious, particularly amongst the poorer people. Glumness prevailed in the service industry and it was difficult to find anyone who was positive about their state of affairs. Obama was seen as the hope of the Democrats which then was synonymous with the hope of America. Hillary Clinton was seen as being a bit too “Boston” and “Money” for the majority but still someone who would do useful work in a Democrat administration. The fate of the Republicans became certain when the governor of Alaska was selected as John McCain’s running mate and vice-president in waiting. Her debut on current affairs TV demonstrated that she new precious little about international matters or indeed America and effectively sunk the Republican campaign.
I spent much time at the National Gallery and discovered the Corcoran Museum of Art and The Hirshhorn Museum, both institutions created by substantial collectors of art and sculpture with both housed in purpose-built galleries. The Hirshhorn is especially interesting as the building is circular and you move around the circumference of each level to see the works. This means that new objects are constantly coming into view as you progress. I also visited Washington’s house Mt Vernon- travelling there on a commuter bus and train and thus avoiding the excessive fees often charged by tour operators. My 2008 trip saw the beginning of a policy which said use public transport if you can especially for travelling to and from airports and Mt Vernon and its history began a new interest for me in America’s beginnings.
After DC I flew to Chicago and discovered one of the pitfalls of booking on line and not being punctilious about checking location. I booked into North Chicago assuming North Chicago is to Chicago as North Melbourne is to Melbourne. My defensive travel instincts were alerted on arrival at Chicago airport when Ms Information Desk reached for an out-of-town map and told me I would have to hire a limousine to get there thus seriously threatening my new public transport policy. Nth Chicago is a village 55 miles north of Chicago (hence Nth Chicago presumably, though we might have said North OF Chicago). After that debacle I always double check locations using Google Maps! So my Chicago trip was complicated by having to commute- fortunately there was a train to town. Nevertheless I started a love affair with the city. Chicago is the home of sky-scraper development defining a cityscape. Right from the early 20th century, when high buildings were made from solid stone and so had definite limits on how high they could go to modern-day steel-frame and concrete structures which can go to over one hundred stories Chicago seems to have kept an eye on how the city looks overall. There is a harmony about Downtown Chicago which I have not seen in any other modern city apart from perhaps SD which is a lot smaller. Chicago was amongst the first cities to insist that high building have setbacks to allow light to reach the street and thus avoid the dark wind tunnels that are a feature of NY, especially in the winter. Really high structures will have several setbacks as they climb to allow light into the city. Chicago is very proud of its architecture and the Chicago Architecture Federation- a largely volunteer organisation-offers informed tours of every aspect of the city both on foot and by boat. I took advantage of both. My trip to Chicago was also complicated by the local Art Institute (i.e. principal art gallery) being largely closed for renovation and extension whilst I was there. Moral to all that is check every institution you wish to visit on the Internet before making decisions to travel.
My 2008 tour sounds dogged by miscalculation but I must say the Primaries struggle between Obama and Clinton and seeing this great democracy confronting its problems made the time worthwhile. As did my time in DC and San Diego.
April 2009: Washington DC and Boston
In DC I spent time in the local art scene as usual and as I was living in the Dupont Circle area (near the White House) I was rather more part of DC entertainment. I also had Easter in DC and celebrated that festival at St Matthews Roman Catholic cathedral. An odd thing for an Anglican to do but the music and the liturgy were too great an attraction. I went out to Dulles airport to the extension of the Smithsonian museum of flight there. It is easily the best flight and space museum I have seen anywhere. It features the Enola Gay (the aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) and several versions of cruise missile as well as historic aircraft, rockets and satellites. It is huge and, even better, the 40 Km journey from DC can be made by cheap commuter bus.
After DC I went to Boston taking AMTRAK. By train it is a six hour journey on a business class train which was full of business types absorbed with their laptop computers or talking earnestly into mobile ‘phones. About half of them got off at Philadelphia and the other half in New York. They were replaced by more business types who got off in Boston. Surprise was expressed that I would travel all the way to Boston by train, why not fly- a one hour trip. Compute the time to get to the airport and the time to get to the departure gate at the airport, the flight, time to get out of the airport and then navigate to your hotel and there is not much change out of six hours for a one hour flight. Travelling centre city to centre city by train and booking hotels near the station at both ends is the better option.
Boston was wet and cold due to its northerly latitude but vastly interesting all the same. The site of important encounters during the War of Independence, the Boston Tea Party (tea party politics are important again in the USA) many historic buildings and monuments, Boston offers much to the tourist. There are two main art galleries; the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Since Boston is right on the Atlantic Ocean there are things to do at sea and I did take my self offshore to view whales which we did whilst freezing to near-death on the open deck of the sight-seeing boat. The public transport system is also excellent and Boston is a very easy place to visit.
May 2010: San Diego, New York, Chicago and Seattle
Again I started my visit by catching up with Fr Tony Noble in SD. From there I flew to New York.
NY is both an easy city and a difficult place to be. Easy because everything you want is handy, difficult because you share the same space with great numbers of people and cars; there is always noise. My time was enlivened by being able to visit Bishop Andrew St John formerly of the Diocese of Melbourne and attending his church at East 29th street, the Vicarage is 1 East 29th street, one door east of Fifth Av. Manhattan, which is what most tourists mean when they say New York, is perhaps the easiest city in the world to find your way around in. The street number system and basing everything on Fifth Av, which runs up the spine of the island, greatly simplifies finding your way around.
NY is possibly the art Mecca of the world. Yes there are Florence, Paris and London but in NY you can see the best pictures of any period of art with perhaps the exception of German Expressionism. MOMA for modern art, The Met for everything, The Frick collection, The Guggenheim collection, The Whitney collection as well as commercial galleries. NY is a truly wonderful place for the art freak. My NY hotel was two blocks from MOMA, two blocks from Central park and across the road from Carnegie Hall. At Carnegie Hall I bought the last ticket to hear Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin and attended a Brahms chamber music concert. What luxury to be able to walk out of your front door and hear Pollini play and I found the concert profoundly evocative; there is a difference when a master plays. Here are a few notes I made after the concert (with apologies to those who know their Chopin better than I do) “Pollini lead us to the inner Chopin, a man who was frustrated towards the end of his life with poor health and failing relationships. Ambition clearly stated suffused with haunting sorrow, terrible honesty, longing and unrealised hope his Chopin was young and old, vigorous and measured, futuristic and backward-looking with questions and answers, brightness and melancholy, longing and resigned resolution. Chopin is a master of the dying fall." 
From NY it was back to Chicago after a two-year break. This time living on Michigan Av Nth- the city’s best address with Nth Chicago a distant memory. Because of bad weather my flight from NY was cancelled and Check-in Desk said breezily; “well you can fly tomorrow” unwelcome news for the traveller who has checked out of one hotel and booked in at the other end. I must have looked particularly pathetic and down-underish because a flight was found though I found myself sitting well aft in Economy too handy to the toilet. Never mind I got to Chicago. Again I employed the public transport doctrine to get to my hotel and spent $2-25 on the train instead of $40 by taxi.
The Art Institute was very much open for business in its new, enlarged and renovated premises and I spent much time there. Apart from that it was architecture with the local volunteer guides of the Chicago Architecture Federation and a wonderful night seeing the musical “Billy Elliot” again I purchased the very last ticket for the performance- there is some virtue in travelling solo. The 14 y/o boy playing Billy (there were four Billies-they take it in turns) was almost supernaturally gifted. At one stage in the performance he was cross-handed skipping, putting in a dance step when the rope was above his head, all in time with the music, and singing. Americans are effusive in their applause and we were on our feet several times during the show and certainly at the end.
Then I took the train to Seattle. Train travel, provided you are well accommodated, is the least stressful way to cover distance. Minimal security screening and unlike airports your travel is from city centre to city centre. You can usually book accommodation at both ends near the station and this eliminates one of air travels biggest problems- getting to and from the airport. And, you always have plenty of room! My AMTRAK train to Seattle from Chicago took two days and two nights to travel the distance; it was not a fast trip. We were told the train travels at 80 mph; it rarely did and spent quite a lot of time pausing at junctions and travelling slowly past long goods trains. As is the case in Australia the rail infrastructure has been allowed to run down so the train is limited by the track and signalling rather than its own propensity. There was time to see the countryside and meet fellow travellers- most of whom were taking the trip for pleasure rather than business- and wayside stopping where you can get out wander around and meet more people. On board the meals were excellent and the bar well stocked. My “Roomette” was more “ette” than “room” so space was a premium. However it was better than sitting up as some did for the whole trip.
Seattle is struggle town right now. There is a significant recession happening in the USA, not so obvious in the richer eastern cities but very noticeable in the north-west. This did mean bargain purchases in the shops but rather too many people on the streets begging.
There is an art museum and a museum of space and flight- Seattle is the home of Boeing and one of the museum's buildings is the original Boeing factory. The flight museum is of interest as it holds the first ever Boeing 747 and the first version of Air Force One- the ‘plane which moves the President around, also a Concorde into which you can climb to see the passenger accommodation and the flight deck. Eisenhower was the first President to have his own plane and there are photos of him boarding the museum’s aircraft. There was also an opportunity to take a flight in a B17- the Flying Fortress of WW2. Flights were expensive and there were no seats anyway but it was interesting to see the machine take off and fly overhead. It is crewed by volunteers many of whom were well into retirement and flies around the country offering the B17 experience nationally.
Seattle is a significant port being on the Pacific coast and connected to west-east train lines as well as Canada by train, ship or ferry. An easy way to see Puget Sound-which connects Seattle to the Pacific Ocean is to take the commercial ferries which ply out of the downtown terminals.
And so back home after a month away. My long-haul flights this trip were in Premium Economy- well worth the extra money.
America will not see me for a while and when I return it will be to Washington DC and New York. These are the cities which have the most to offer the art-seeking traveller and are easy to get to and find your way around in.