NYC art

David Whitley learns a few important lessons on New York’s art museum trail.

As a general rule, art galleries are not really my thing. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the odd painting or sculpture – I just don’t havethe level of knowledge and interest to make studying numerous works aparticularly enjoyable experience. I know I’m not alone in this. In fact, you can probably go into any art museum in the world and see a fair few people trudging around, tryingreally hard to enjoy it but ultimately failing. Still, when there’s an art museum that is generally regarded as world class, I’ll usually feel obligated to go and have a look while I’m in town. And, in New York, that meant the Solomon R Guggenheim museum.



In this case, you could argue that the building is as (if not more) impressive than the collection itself. Frank Lloyd Wright has come up with a masterpiece – with the interior spiral providing a setting that is far detached from the usual series of grand, square rooms. But going round it did confirm a few things about how those who are more art bluffs than art buffs can get more enjoyment from the whole gallery-going experience. And this is pretty much it...

Go for short bursts

Trying to get your money’s worth by seeing everything is usually going to lead to tired eyes and overkill. It’s the equivalent of trying toappreciate food by ordering absolutely everything on the menu and making yourself sick. Pick a couple of sections that will probably be of most interest, see them at an easy pace, then get the hell out before it starts to become a chore rather than a novelty. 

Don’t worry about not getting it

I have seen lots of pictures by Van Gogh and Monet – almost universally regarded as two of the greatest artists of all time – and I’m yet to see one that I find even vaguely interesting. I’m sure there’s a world of complexity in the brushstrokes that I’m not getting, but I’ve stopped worrying about it. If I’m a Philistine for not liking Van Gogh, then I’m a happy Philistine. I don’t like olives, sauvignon blanc wines, films about the Mafia and the music of David Bowie either. I know I probably should, but I just don’t. It’s OK to admit something is just not to your taste – even if most others seem to think it’s wonderful.

Learn what is to your tastes

Monet might leave me non-plussed, but experience tells me that I really like Dali. And once you find a couple of artists you do like, then a trip to the gallery often has a treat at the end. Most of the work is the maincourse – a lot of spinach and broccoli, but the odd nice roast potato and some occasionally succulent meat. If there’s a Dali or two in there, then I’ve got pudding which I’m pretty much guaranteed to enjoy.  Over time, as well, you learn to understand what the terms such as expressionist, Bauhaus, rococo and cubist mean. Once you start fitting the artists you like into a rough category, you’ve got a far better idea of what sections to head for the next time you head to a museum. Think of it as being a bit like wine – you might not know too much about it, but you eventually workout that you’re more likely to enjoy a shiraz than a merlot.

Treat it as a mission of discovery

You know that joy that comes from listening to a compilation album and coming across something that you’ve never heard before but instantly like? Well an art gallery can be a bit like that too. The Guggenheim in New York, for example, has plenty by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and, yes, Van Gogh and Monet. They elicit little more than a yawn from me.

However, there are plenty of pieces by artists I’d never heard of before going in. Marcel Gromaire’s La Guerre, for example, is immediately striking and likeable. The chunky, almost The Thing from X-Men-esque characters in the trenches offer a very different take on the traditional battle scene. I also found myself really liking pieces by Barthel Gilles and Fernand Leger. Don’t ask me why, or who they are. I just liked them.

And, that, surely is the point. It’s not about the price tag or reputation or not, but how it makes you feel. Frankly, if a child-like scrawlmakes you smile or moves you in some way, then that counts for far more than seeing any number of supposed masterpieces. 


Disclosure: David was a guest of, and had a New York  City Pass( He stayed at the Hilton Gardens Staten Island ( and the Affinia Dumont ( in Manhattan.




David Whitl... sorry, David Whitley’s ‘friend of a friend’ discusses how to get anywhere on foot in American cities

Some American cities are about as pedestrian-friendly as minefields that have added bear traps thrown in for good measure. Despite reputations to the contrary, not every US city is like this, but generally the further south you go, the worse it gets. Dallas is a predictably appalling example of America’s slavish, senseless devotion to the car. The city is such a mammoth sprawl that it is often known as the Dallas Fort-Worth Area, a conurbation that is probably larger than most countries. 

But it’s not about distances. It’s about ease of getting between places. From a map, some areas look easy enough to walk between – perhaps a mile or two apart. But the time it takes to get from A to B is a different matter altogether. In Dallas, it’s rare to find a road that’s a normal two lane street. Most are four, six, eight or ten lane monsters. If you can imagine the joy of trying to get across a dual carriageway on one block, then a motorway on the next, you’re starting to get the picture.

Some of these snarling beasty roads have pedestrian crossings, but you’ll often have to walk 500m or so in the wrong direction to find one, and then wait about five minutes for the green man. When he does arrive, it’ll be for two seconds max. In fact, if anyone has a photo of a green man in Dallas, I’d love to see what they look like.
Essentially, you spend five to ten minutes trying to cross every single road, and this is why you’ve pretty much got no option but to repeatedly jaywalk.

Jaywalking – crossing a road in violation of traffic controls – is something of an art. It is illegal in the US, so *adopts arse-covering tone* my advice is not to do it. Ever. However, a friend of a friend once told me something like this...

1. Apply the green cross code
This is common sense. If you’re going to cross, make sure you do somewhere than you can see traffic coming both ways. Look both ways, and wait for the gap in traffic.

2. Speed counts
Of course, if there isn’t a gap in traffic, you’re going to have to make a break for it. If traffic is virtually at a standstill anyway, you can weave through it without too much danger other than angry shouts and bipping of horns.

3. Cross at the lights
Better still, cross at the traffic lights. If traffic is stopped there, it can’t go again until the lights change. As long as you’re in the road before those lights change, they’re hardly likely to accelerate into you. No-one wants those costly insurance claims.

4. Split into halves
The problem with this approach is that there’s often something coming the other way. If you can get to the traffic island, you’re fine – just wait for the gap in the other direction. If there is no traffic island, prepare to annoy everyone and stand right in the middle on the white line until that gap emerges.

5. Learn the light changes
Often traffic lights change way before the pedestrian lights change. By watching who else is stopping at the junction, you can generally work out which way the lights will go next and leg it across way before the green man invites you to.

6. Look like you mean it
Timid gets you nowhere in this game. If you’re going to go, go. Stride purposefully with no shame or run. Scared baby steps off the pavement and dithering will lead to the window of opportunity closing. Remember that anyone who can see you does not want to hit you. The danger is people who can’t see you. If you work on the principle that you never step out in front of a car that would have to slow down for you to pass, you’re getting it about right.

7. Don’t do it in front of policemen or children
The former is fairly obvious. I’ve never been stopped for jaywalking, but if I was I’d try the “perhaps you could describe the vehicles I caused to slow down or deviate from their path” defence. As for children, it’s about setting an example. Young kids don’t need the “running into traffic” idea implanted in their heads...

Ellis Island





David Whitley is moved to tears at the tiny island in New York Harbor that provided the first taste of America for millions of people.


The start point

Shouty right-wing America may try and claim that the country rose to greatness on many things – low taxation, a mythical set of shared values, the will of God, you name it. But if there is one fundamental reason that the US has become the sole world superpower it is today, it is mass immigration.


Don’t believe me? Then take a trip to Ellis Island. This tiny island in New York Harbor (although technically part of New Jersey) was, for so many new Americans, where it all began. Between 1892 and 1924, over twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island – the country’s primary registration centre and checkpoint. Today, at least 100m Americans are descended from someone who was processed there. These days the island is a big museum and monument to those who flooded in from across the world – and if there’s a more moving place in the entire country, then I’d love to see it.


Open door immigration

The Ellis Island story starts with the open door immigration policy of the 19th century. Politicians realised that the American population was small, and that more people were needed in order to build a strong economy. It was an open invite to the rest of the world to come and emigrate. And the rest of the world took it with open arms. Some came to flee religious persecution in their homelands, some came for the adventure and others came to escape often miserable conditions. None knew what they were really letting themselves in for when they arrived, but arrive they did – often with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.


After journeys of a week or more on cramped steamships, they would enter New York Harbor, greeted by the Statue of Liberty and stunned by the Manhattan skyline to their right. As a number of first-hand accounts within the museum indicate, the poor, huddled masses and never seen anything like it before. The giant registration hall at Ellis Island was the last hurdle. It was where papers, criminal records and appearance were checked. Those deemed of poor character or poor health would face the heartbreak of being sent back. The rest would be passed through, left to fend for themselves, buying train tickets to places that were just names in a language they didn’t understand.


An emotional journey

Walking through that hall still has you choking back the tears. It’s an incredibly atmospheric place, and it is surrounded by a series of rooms that concentrate on one aspect or other of the immigration wave. Ellis Island is one of those places where it’s almost unnecessary to read anything – the wealth of old photographs and archive video footage are more than enough to tell the story of hope, fear and speculation. You can see the thoughts running between those black and white eyes. But some of the quotes from those immigrants, now either extremely elderly or dead, make you well up. “It means more to me than my native land,” says one voice.


Another response to the intelligence test, designed to weed out the mentally ill, is telling. When asked whether she would clean the stairs from the top or from the bottom, she responded: “I didn’t come to America to wash stairs.” Perhaps she didn’t, but the story is so often the same. Each wave of immigrants would be blamed by the previous ones for perceived increases in crime, and would have to survive by doing the manual jobs that no-one else wanted to do. The American bed of roses was often full of thorns. As one old Italian tale plastered on the wall says: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things. First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.” In a nutshell, that is the Ellis Island story. But the Ellis Island story is also the country’s, and a hundred million separate tales stem from there.


Disclosure: David was a guest of, and had a New York City Pass ( He stayed at the Hilton Gardens Staten Island ( and the Affinia Dumont ( in Manhattan.


Read An immigrant’s tale : The foreigners that keep the US moving - Part 2 here




Travelling up the east coast of the United States, David Whitley encounters a few people who tell the tale of modern day immigration.


Past and present

The days of open door immigration in the United States, as told so profoundly at the old registration centre at Ellis Island, are long gone. These days, emigrating to the United States is a tough, ruthlessly controlled process, and most of the millions that came in the past would stand no chance now. But while Ellis Island tells the story of America’s past, it also provides dark hints about America’s present. One of the key things learned on that island is that it is always easy to blame immigrants for everything. It’s something that is seen across the world – they come to our country, take our jobs, commit all the crime and insist on keeping their own culture rather than learning to assimilate with ours.



There are few parts of the world where this isn’t the tale. Britain shrieks about Pakistani immigrants, Australia frets about the Lebanese, South Africa worries about the Nigerians and Zimbabweans, Germany thinks it’s overrun by Turks, France wants to chuck out the Roma, Italy thinks its drowning in a flood of Africans and Albanians and the suspicion about the Somalis, Afghans and Iraqis is almost global.


Immigration in the US

The US – a country, remember, that is almost entirely founded on immigration, is one of the worst culprits for such scare stories. Illegal immigration is a massive issue here, and whilst some call for an amnesty that would allow for those who have overstayed their visas to stay in the country, the Send Them Home crowd is far more vocal. A sizable percentage of US citizens would probably prefer it if no-one was allowed at all and that all jobs were kept for good, patriotic Americans.


If only it was that simple. Travelling up America’s east coast, I keep encountering admissions that put multi-cultural America into perspective. In Washington, for example, I had an excellent meal that I later discovered was cooked by a chef from El Salvador. The joint’s owner told me: “America’s great restaurants would collapse without Central American labour. Pretty much every single one of them is reliant on it, and a lot of it’s not legal.�?


This is America’s dirty secret; the low paid immigrant workers (legal or otherwise) are what keeps the wheels turning. This story was replicated in Pennsylvania’s idyllic countryside. My uncle told me about the attitude of many locals to the Mexican workers who were doing all the donkeywork on the local farms. “People say they are taking American jobs, but they’re not – they’re doing the jobs that Americans don’t want to do. Stop Mexicans working on the farms, then send the illegal workers home, and the agriculture industry will be in a horrible mess.�?


An enlightening taxi ride

That’s the tale from those who are prepared to admit what’s happening. But what about from the horse’s mouth? Well, in New York, I hopped in a cab that I suspect wasn’t entirely legitimate. It wasn’t yellow, there was no meter in sight and the driver was a Nigerian chap. He was friendly, articulate and pretty open, so I ended up chatting with him all the way back to my hotel. His tale was sobering, and somewhat heartbreaking.


He had come to New York 20 years ago, and has been living in the city ever since. He sends the majority of what he earns back to Nigeria, to a wife and three children he hasn’t seen in two decades. This is despite facing New York living costs that most New Yorkers will whinge leaves them scrabbling around the poverty line. Yet my cabbie still seemed grateful for the opportunity to be here; happier to hold forth about Africa’s problems than those in his adopted nation. This man, America, represents the vast majority of the people your more lunatic fringes like to demonise.


America’s amazing diversity

One of the things I have enjoyed so much about being in the States is the diverse communities that make up little exclaves. I love that Washington DC has loads of Ethiopian restaurants, and streets that may as well be El Salvador. I love that almost as many (if not more) Puerto Ricans live in New York than Puerto Rico and that Staten Island has the largest Liberian population outside of Liberia. The distinct Chinatowns, Little Italy’s and Ukrainian villages are the prominent manifestations of something far more impressive. You can find the world in the United States; that’s what makes it great. For a country that has historically accepted the world in its embrace, to start rejecting it would be an almighty shame.


Read Ellis Island – where the United States begins - Part 1here


High Heels



I am a practical traveller. I own Gore-Tex and wind fleece, those ugly zip-off convertible pants and I always leave my hotel wearing comfy shoes. I layer my clothes and carry a backpack instead of a handbag, as I know it will distribute the weight more evenly across my back. It is rare you’ll find make up in my bag, and you sure won’t find jewellery. I rarely even brush my hair when I travel.


And yet there is one city where my sensible shoes, baggage allowance and comfort-first mantra goes straight out the window. A city where you need to own it. New York city is one of those cities. Years of diligent chic-flick and chic lit had slowly ingrained in my female psyche the need to look good in New York. The Devil Wears Prada, Cruel Intentions, Sex & the City and Gossip Girl all had their part to play in my decision: if I was going to do New York for the first time, I was going to live the fantasy and do it in style.


I’d sourced my outfit from a vintage store in New Orleans. A Mad Men-esque 1950s twin-set pinched at the waist and topped with a thick woollen cape. Four-inch high heels and fishnet hose and my hair flicked up in a French roll with giant oversized sunglasses. A retro bowling bag style handbag covered in Vang Gogh’s cherry blossoms that matched the colours on my coat finished the look.


I only had 24 hours in New York, and I knew I couldn’t do it all, so I decided to do very little-wondering the streets to take it all in. I set off from my hotel on Broadway at Midday in the vague direction of Central Park, my map tucked away in my bag.  It was 6 degrees and it was chilly, but the park was stunning under clear blue skies, showing off what is one of the concrete jungle’s greatest beauties. Despite feeling overdressed at first, my confidence had been boosted by the once-overs and nods from passing fashionistas I’d been given, a few clicks of the camera from tourists and one fashionable gentleman had told me “Honey, you got it, you got it” as he passed me by.


But when I exited the Park near Central Park Zoo I realised my heels had magically clicked together and brought me to the shopping girl’s spiritual home: Fifth Avenue, home to FAO Schwarz and Saks, Bergdorf’s and Barney’s and of course, Tiffany’s.  There are few women who don’t understand the significance and power of the little blue box. Their trinkets and diamond rings and bracelets and necklaces are the souvenir of choice for most friends I know who have been to New York City.


It’s all Audrey Hepburn’s fault, swanning about in front of Tiffany’s in a ball gown at dawn, coffee in hand, her face hidden behind sunglasses and her hair swept in a glamorous up-do in the iconic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  She represented the outsider looking in, desperate to get a taste of that world where she didn’t belong. Looking in through the window where she stood in the film, I had to laugh at my own reflection. Just like her character Holly Golightly, I was playing dress ups, too. And I was having a lot of fun doing it.


My feet were hurting a little by the time I kicked them off in my hotel room. But I realised I was comfortable in a different way. Dressed as I was, I felt like I belonged to the city, and that made walking over fifty blocks in high heels worthwhile.



Disclosure: The writer stayed as a guest of the Hotel Beacon New York: