Los Alamos: The town that made the atom bomb

 

In the middle of New Mexico, David Whitley discovers the secrets of the hilltop town that created the most fearsome monster ever used

The road up to the top of the mountain – a mesa, realistically – is packed with espionage thriller-style drama. It snakes up the canyon wall before morphing into a town that, at one point, didn’t officially exist.

During the Second World War, this was simply “PO Box 1663, Santa Fe”. Yet, high on the hill, many of the world’s top scientists were gathering to create something that would change the world forever – and in the darkest of ways.

In 1943, Los Alamos – once home to just a ranch school for shy, sickly boys – became the top secret home to the Manhattan Project. The military moved in to create a town from nothing. The scientists moved in to create the deadliest weapon ever used in battle.

The story of the atomic bomb – part of it, anyway – is told inside the Bradbury Science Center. And it’s full of surprises. For example, Vice President Harry Truman – who would eventually give the order to drop the bomb on Hiroshima - didn’t know the project existed until the second week after he took over the presidency.

I also didn’t know that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were different types. When the project started, they didn’t know which would work (one used the uranium-235 isotope, the other plutonium-239), so they worked on both in tandem.

The copies of once-classified documents are utterly grossing. There’s Albert Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt warning him of the possibility of nuclear chain reactions being used to make bombs – and that the Germans may have been working on such weapons. There’s also physicist Enrico Fermi’s dry, descriptive reaction to the first ever atomic bomb detonation – at the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range, around 200 miles south.

 

 

Just about everything to do with that Trinity test sends shivers down the spine. The video of the original mushroom cloud going up is terrifying, as are the reactions to it. A voice of a witness gasps: “What have we done?” Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist in charge of the Manhattan Project, recalled a line from the Bhagavad Gita – “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The devastating impact was enough to move some scientists who worked on the bomb to write to the President, begging him never to let the bomb be used.

Less chilling, but fascinating in a different way, are the tales of everyday life on The Hill. Some are told in the Bradbury Center, others in the Los Alamos Historical Museum – once the guest cottage for the ranch school that was appropriated by the military for the secret mission. It wasn’t just a hidden-away lab – it was a town, and one with a very young, lively population. A maternity wing had to be built onto the hospital as so many children were born there. Their birth certificates don’t say Los Alamos though – just PO Box 1663, Santa Fe. Imagine trying to explain that to an employer.

Equally stunning are the testimonies from the people who worked at Los Alamos, without ever knowing what they were working on. A lab technician who worked on the detonators says that he only worked it out after reading the papers following the Hiroshima bombing.

It’s a place where you could spend days happily reading the letters home to parents, where the moral quandaries over whether to drop the bomb are not glossed over, and the realities of keeping something so monstrous so secret hit home.

But it’s all a slice of the past until you drive out of town. On the main road out, there’s a security checkpoint, and all cars are thoroughly checked out. They still do nuclear research here. A lot of it. And much of it is highly classified.

by David Whitley

  

 

You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

Choose your Own Adventure in New York City

 

 

 

There's so much to do and catch up on in NYC that I'm in my hotel room barely long enough to catch a wink of sleep, so my choice of accommodation is based on three factors - cost, location and free wifi.

New York is a city where you can be yourself, or create a character and play out your fantasies - whatever your taste and budget, you'll find somewhere to suit your persona. Here are five NYC hotels offering very different experiences, as well as a good locale and free wifi:

 

In The Navy

Jane Hotel

From $89 (£57) per night for a single room, plus taxes

Finding your own room in Manhattan for $95 a night is near-impossible unless you want to stay in a hostel on the Upper West Side and share with roaches.

The Jane Hotel is my favourite in New York; it's not only a great budget option, but it's in a picturesque neighbourhood and stuffed full of history. The hotel was a seaman's flophouse when built in 1908, and provided shelter for the surviving crew of the Titanic in 1912.

While the small rooms and shared (but pristinely kept) bathrooms won't suit all tastes, the location is ideal - two blocks from the High Line, and far from the neon and noise of Midtown. As an added bonus, the Jane Ballroom is a favourite spot for the city's nightlife to play in the shadows, and Cafe Gitane isn't a bad shout for a civilised Sunday brunch.

 

A Parisian in New York

Washington Square Hotel

From $253 (£161) per night for a single room, plus taxes

Tucked away on the North West corner of Washington Square Park is this petite Art Deco hotel, surprisingly serene despite its proximity to one of the city's major tourist attractions. A favourite haunt for writers and artists, everything from the furniture to the hand painted tile mosaics will lure you into the past. Wake up to a park view on a warm Autumn day with the golden Manhattan rays filtering through the island's streets, and you'll be all set for a Parisienne state of mind.

 

Soldier, Soldier

The Bowery House

From $82 (£52) per night for a single cabin, plus taxes

On the edge of both Soho and Chinatown, the Bowery is slower than most neighbourhoods to succumb to gentrification. The city's oldest thoroughfare was known as Skid Row for much of the 20th Century, but while new bars and restaurants are popping up all the time, there's still enough grit to distinguish it from elsewhere in Manhattan.

Originally opened in the 1920s as The Prince Hotel, The Bowery House was converted to cabins to house soldiers returning home from the second World War. Although there are some private and bunk rooms to choose from, the Bowery House is essentially a hostel; while you have your own space with your own front door, the ceilings are partially open, covered by a wooden lattice. This means you'll hear every snore, fart and early morning alarm of your fellow guests, without the need to suffer their death stares when you're the culprit.

The rooftop garden is a fun space in the summer months and reception is perfect for lounging about on long leather sofas. But while the price tag is tempting, it's worth thinking twice if you're above average height - the beds in the cabins are just 69" (75 cm) long.

 

Born to be Wild

The Standard

From $495 (£316) per night for a double room, plus taxes

The High Line carves a lush path of flora through the apartments of Manhattan's West Side; the park that stretches along an abandoned elevated freight track is fast becoming a favourite with locals and tourists alike.

So what you don't really expect, certainly not at half past ten on a Tuesday morning, is the sight of a couple enjoying moderately energetic sex against the windows of the Standard Hotel, which straddles the park.

It's a whopping price-tag, but the views are amongst the best in Manhattan. To the south, the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty and Downtown; to the North, the Empire State Building and the chaos of light and skyscrapers marking Time Square.

The hotel does insist that guests refrain from performing in their rooms for the audience below, but plenty do regardless - and that's before they've enjoyed a night of cocktails and depravity in the Boom Boom Rooms at the top of the Standard.

 

Futureheads

Yotel

From $309 (£197) per night for a double room, plus taxes

There aren't many hotels where crowds gather in reception to watch the luggage being stored, but most hotels don't have a talking robot arm called Yobot.

From the moment you check-in; the mood and reliance on technology makes Yotel feel like a place from some indeterminate point in the near-future. Not necessarily a world of transporters and starships, but certainly one where a flying car might collect you from the door. Rooms are small (like most in NYC) but perfectly comfortable, and the uber-cool bar area is perfect for wearing Apple headphones and ignoring like-minded travellers.

 

Tip - Thinking Frugally, Living in Luxury

It may not be the most desirable time to travel, but if you want luxury on a budget, January in NYC is the time to do it. If you arrive in the week after New Year's Day then it's not unusual to find three and four star hotels dropping their rates close to £100 per night, and many more will be up to half price.

The reason? It's still the holidays; everyone has spent up on celebrating Christmas and New Year so hotels need to lure guests in. That, and New York's weather in January is colder than Hoth, with Arctic blasts freezing the Eastern seaboard. Yet the city that never sleeps won't be found snoozing through the cold, so pack the thermals and you'll still enjoy yourself

 



   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 

16 reasons for Brooklyn

 



 

David Whitley heads across the bridge from Manhattan to New York’s second borough. And here are 16 reasons why you should too 

 

 

 

Brooklyn Bridge

 

When it opened in 1883, ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ was the longest bridge on the planet. The mayor had to arrange for a herd of elephants to cross it before people were convinced it was safe – and remarkably safe it has proved to be. The cables holding it up have never been replaced, and their almost dainty web balances the majesty of the arched stone towers wonderfully. It’s a genuinely beautiful bridge – and it’s no surprise that it has enchanted people for over a century.

 

 

 

The Promenade

 

The walk along Brooklyn’s waterfront, from the bridge southwards, will undoubtedly be a greater treasure in ten to twenty years’ time. It is slowly being turned into a connecting series of parks, with old industrial remnants being turned into performance venues and kayak launch sites. For now, it’s a bit scraggly, but the views more than make up for that. The Manhattan skyline, Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty line up dutifully for prime gawping.

 

 

 

Bargemusic

 

Of those performance venues, Bargemusic has the head start. There are bigger and more architecturally saliva-inducing places to enjoy classical music in New York, but none have Bargemusic’s level of charm. As the name suggests, it’s an old coffee barge moored near the Brooklyn Bridge, and the regular concerts held on it have a living room-like intimacy. Best of all, the 3pm Saturday afternoon concerts are free – and seats are given away on a first come, first served basis.

 

 

 

DUMBO

 

Nearby is a former industrial district that the artists have well and truly taken over. DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) hosts scores of studios, galleries and performance spaces. 111 Front Street is the prime mooching ground – it hosts over 20 separate galleries, most of which are artist-run. 145 Front Street is great too – it’s a collection of independent craft and fashion shops, where the creators can often be found at work making jewellery or spray-painting in a back corner.



 

 

 

Street Art

 

The most exciting art scene is found outdoors, however. Levys’ Unique Tours runs special runs special jaunts around the street art hotbeds in Williamsburg and Bushwick, pointing out the most impressive murals, stencil work and guerrilla redecorations. It ranges from the cute to the deliciously subversive, using everything from glued-on wood to indelible road paint. The tours introduce some of the major players in the street art scene and point out works that most people would pass without noticing. 

 

 

 

Pointing and Laughing

 

Brooklyn is the Serengeti of people-watching. Williamsburg, in particular, is a seething hive of affectation and ludicrous outfits that the wearers genuinely think look good. A walk around the streets can become a gleeful idiot safari, with plentiful spottings of absurd facial hair, patchwork quilt waistcoats and painful tight drainpipe trousers turned up to reveal an immaculate sockless ankle. Watching this scenester descent to the Mariana Trench of self-parody is a tremendous fun.

 

 

 

Bar-hopping

 

The plus side of all this self-styled (and self-conscious) cool is a phenomenal bar scene. Brooklyn is teeming with highly individual bars, often created out of old factories and warehouses, and regularly competing for the best beer and cocktail selections. Excellent examples include the Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick and Bierkraft in Park Slope, while the stalwart Brooklyn Brewery site in Williamsburg is a hugely enjoyable – and surprisingly egalitarian for the area – hang-out.

 

 

 

Live music

 

Everyone in Brooklyn seems to be either in a band or has a friend that’s in one. This leads to bars, cafés, garages – you name it – regularly being taken over by indie-rockers. The Music Hall of Williamsburg is the best bet for catching a big name on the scene amongst people who say the band was much better when no-one else had heard of them. Zebulon, meanwhile has an utterly eclectic mix of genres and no cover charge. 

 

Movie magic

 

Hundreds of classic movie scenes have been shot in Brooklyn. John Travolta strutting along the street in the opening sequence to Saturday Night Fever? That’s Bensonhurst. Al Pacino driving blind in a red sports car in Scent of a Woman? DUMBO. But it’s not just about going to the locations – during the summer months, Pier 1 by the Brooklyn Bridge is turned into what is arguably the world’s most spectacular open air cinema. Best of all, the film favourites and the Manhattan backdrop are free to watch at Movies With A View



 

Pizza

 

Many of the movie locations are covered and pointed out in A Slice Of Brooklyn’s wide-ranging tours. But the main focus is pizza – something that is an undisputed strength in a borough with a historically huge Italian population.  The Neapolitan-style margaritas at Grimaldi’s in DUMBO and the thick Sicilian-style slices at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst are both the stuff of legend in these parts. 

 

Coney Island

 

The pizza tour finishes at Coney Island, a gloriously shabby throwback to the days when theme park rides invoked fear through dubious-looking construction rather than multiple loop-the-loops. It’s a blue collar place of staggering along the boardwalk with your shirt off after too much beer. Or watching fire-eaters, contortionists and people who’ll hammer metal spikes through their bodies in the name of sideshow entertainment. Then there’s the Cyclone, the wooden rollercoaster that may as well be the dictionary definition of “rickety”. 

 

Freaky festivals

 

It’s Coney Island’s mix of old-fashioned and odd that elevates it above run-down seediness. And that odd factor comes bursting to the fore twice a year at the Mermaid Parade and Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. The former takes place in mid-June, offering a surreal cavalcade of OTT aquatic costumes. The latter – taking place on July 4th - is gross-out viewing. Junk food warriors attempt to stuff as many hotdogs down their gullets as possible in ten minutes in front of a bearpit-like crowd. The record? A terrifying 68, buns and all.

 

Beacon’s Closet

 

There are second hand stores, and there are second hand stores. Beacon’s Closet is the Colosseum of clothing exchange, with rows of specialist buyers casting their eye over the items brought in, then putting a value on them. Sellers get 35% of that value in cash or a 55% store credit. And in that store, amongst some fairly generic chain store garments, are some world class vintage finds and outfits that push ‘individual’ to its outer limits. Beacon’s Closet has spread over several locations, but the biggest is in Williamsburg.



 

Brooklyn Flea

 

Fans of such delving for jewels can extend beyond clothing into antiques, furniture and, well, just about anything at one of the world’s great flea markets. Taking place in Fort Greene on Saturdays, and Williamsburg on Sundays, the Brooklyn Flea blurs the traditional tat-flogging boundaries by throwing craftspeople, jewellers and locally-made fresh food into a highly pleasurable mix. 

 

 

 

New York Transport Museum

 

Inside a still-working but decommissioned subway station, which is often used for action film shoots, the New York Transport Museum tells the unexpectedly absorbing story of the city’s Subway network. The sections on buses and power supply to the transport system are take-or-leave, but the opening salvo on the construction of the Subway is superb. The photographs brim with stories, whilst tales of workers being thrust out of the tunnels under the river on a blowhole of compressed air are terrifying. 

 

Prospect Park

 

Central Park in Manhattan isn’t New York’s only world class green space. Prospect Park was planned by the same man – Frederick Law Olmstead – but it has a much wilder, forest-like vibe to it. Until you emerge at the boating lake or Picnic House, it feels hundreds of miles away from the biggest city in the US. But there’s space in the 585 acres of often untamed woodland for a few crowd-pleasers – including a small zoo, a music pagoda and an atmospheric Quaker cemetery.

 

 

Disclosure: The writer was a guest of NYC and Company

 

 

 

 

 

by David Whitley

 

 

You can get New York included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW or on our Discoverer RTW deal

Radio Row

 

 

The most intriguing stories are often told by the most unremarkable characters. It isn't always the dazzling or the flamboyant that has the most to say, but the mundane.

 

In Downtown Manhattan is a broad sweep of avenue called Park Row. Adjacent is the Mayor's office in City Hall, opposite is the Woolworth building and a block away is the yawning scar of the World Trade Center site, a claustrophobic racket of construction and gawping tourists.

 

Park Row was known as Newspaper Row at the turn of the 20th Century, and was home to The New York Times, The New York Tribune and The New York World (the latter published by Joseph Pulitzer). Two of those titles no longer exist and The New York Times migrated to Longacre Square in Midtown long ago (which became known as Times Square). Today, Park Row plays host to camera stores, corporate coffee houses and no-name delis. But one store caught my eye while walking through City Hall Park, and it'd probably catch your eye, too. Dwarfed by newer buildings either side, there stands a five-storey warehouse, home to a hardware store called Weinstein & Holtzman.

 

"I'm not too sure, but I think we've been trading since the Twenties or Thirties, something like that." After picking my way through the toolbox of products and cluttered shelves spilling with drills, the staff weren't too sure what the story was either. The primary-coloured weather-resistant signs of decades past, such a unique name above the door will draw attention from many a passerby, some may wonder why a hardware store chose the financial heart of the country to set up in. But of course it didn't; when Weinstein & Holtzman was established, downtown Manhattan was a very different place.

 

The business did indeed open to the public in 1920, which means the hardware store is arguably one of the only survivors from the era of New York City's Radio Row, a warehouse district which stretched across lower Manhattan from the 1920s to the 1960s. Then, radio was as fundamental to the lives of New Yorkers as mobile phones and laptops are today. Radio Row was home to dozens to traders selling spare parts and tools to the public; while disposable goods is a commonplace concept today, it was alien then, so people would trawl through bins of valves and tubes and condensers, looking for the parts to fix their sets themselves. Children would often accompany their fathers after school, an adventure to scrounge and scavenge and salvage. Every store, every stall had their radios playing, the noise was deafening, a chaotic, crackling cacophony that echoed through the city.

 

Radio Row didn't just support the city's electronics industry, however. Dozens of independent businesses - restaurants, florists, printers and hardware stores - called the neighbourhood home. At its peak, over 300 stores spilt onto the streets with similar numbers in the floors above. When radio died down, the neighbourhood also moved with the times; TVs and HiFis replaced radios in store windows in the 1950s. It truly was a place like no other.

 

Radio Row tuned out in 1966; over a dozen blocks of warehouses and stores were razed in preparation for the next great chapter in New York's story - the construction of the World Trade Center. But there were bitter rows and fierce court battles; the city used the power of Eminent Domain to legally evict the business owners from their own premises. Those displaced were paid a pittance in compensation; most closed while a few scattered North to Canal Street and beyond. Just one spare parts business to trade on Radio Row is thought to still operate in the city today, a company called Leeds which relocated to Brooklyn.

 

Weinstein & Holtzman is a block to the east of the World Trade Center site, and so survived the destruction of Radio Row. Having spent an afternoon marching up and down the streets adjacent to WTC construction site, it's safe to say there no other stores like it to be found in the neighbourhood; a mundane hardware store that catches the eye, because it was a business that boomed in a city in tune with Radio Row and a long-forgotten melody.

You can get the USA included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

 

Tall tales

 


 

 

 

The only way is up in Manhattan, and has been for quite some time. Building a metropolis on an island of finite size means all the sprawl is upwards, not outwards. That's why Manhattan is a high-rise forest of skyscrapers, why population density and land prices are through the roof. The side-effect to this development is that buildings and plots of land are continually recycled, meaning every neighbourhood, every street has a story to tell and secrets to share about its past. All the events that have moulded the culture and colour of New York City over the past 400 years have transpired within a few blocks of one another.

 

 

 

 

In his book A Guide to Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos of New York City’s Lower East Side, Author Eric Ferrara provides a bloody example of this phenomenon, commenting that the Lower East Side of Manhattan “was arguably the most murderous neighbourhood in the United States… over the last two hundred years, there was a murder on almost every single property I researched – and many times there were multiple incidents in the same building throughout the years.”

 

 

When stories are everywhere you turn, however, they can be easily twisted by memory or rumour, and even dinner with friends can lead to a fascinating but confused history lesson.

 

 

 

The Public is a up-scale restaurant in Lower Manhattan at 210 Elizabeth Street; a century ago this street and those surrounding it were the heart of Little Italy. Now there's barely a few blocks of pizzerias and tourist tat; Chinatown has sprawled to claim some streets while others have been consumed by the hipster boutiques of SoHo.

 

 

 

Inside, the Public hosts well-to-do New Yorkers enjoying Michelin Star dining, a few first dates going well or otherwise, and, on the night in question, me being treated to a meal by some very kind friends. There are two dining areas in the restaurant; one is broad with an arched roof lined with white tiles. The other room is the ground floor of the building next door, and runs long from the street to a study in the back where a log fire and cocktails are enjoyed. Candles, lamps and darkness dress the beautiful clientele.

 

 

 

"What did this place used to be?" I asked our host as we were seated at our table.

 

 

 

"This half," replied the host as she waved to the arched, tiled ceiling above us, "used to be a muffin bakery, the shape of the ceiling and the tiles used to retain the heat while baking."

 

 

 

Interesting, I thought, but nothing spectacular.

 

 

 

"The other half," she said, pointing to the doorway into the longer dining room, "used to the laboratory of Thomas Edison." Our host leaned in closer. "He would buy horses from nearby stables and electrocute them in his experiments with electricity!"

 

 

 

Our dinner party wasn't expecting such a shocking denouement - one of the world's most iconic inventors used to kill horses in the restaurant? Now that was interesting, if a little macabre. Proof that everywhere you turned in New York City, there was a story waiting to be discovered. And there is. Except on this occasion, our host's revelation turned out to be a tale taller than the skyline outside.

 

 

 

Rooting through the history books, it transpires Thomas Edison didn't electrocute horses, or any other animals. Three associates did, however. At a time when the dangers of electricity were yet to be understood, an electrician called Harold P. Brown sought to prove whether alternating or direct current was more lethal. Along with two colleagues, Brown approached Edison to borrow equipment so they might perform experiments with AC and DC currents. Instead, Edison provided the trio with the use of his personal laboratory. Over the course of a year, from 1887 to 1888, Brown and the others used Edison's laboratory to electrocute dogs, bought from children in the streets for 25¢ each.

 

 

 

While Edison supported the experiments for his own agenda (including the development of the electric chair), he wasn't directly involved. Besides which, Edison's laboratory wasn't in New York, it was in West Orange, New Jersey, and is now a national park. Edison's former employee and world famous scientist Nikola Tesla did have several laboratories in New York, but none of them were on Elizabeth Street.

 

 

 

So is there any connection between Thomas Edison and 210 Elizabeth Street? If there is, it's tenuous at best. The address was used by the Brush Electric Illuminating Company as an electric light station around the time of the experiments, providing power to electric lamps in the neighbourhood. And Harold P. Brown did work for Brush Electric in the early 1880s, but several years before any experiments were conducted.

 

 

 

Still, our dinner party lapped up the revelations about Edison (along with the soup), ignorant to the facts at the time. After all, we all love stories and New York, it's fair to say, is a place with plenty of them to tell. But in a city with its head in the clouds, you should always expect to hear a tall tale or two.

You can get the USA included as a stopover in the Globehopper RTW