City Island, The Bronx
For some reason I’ve become fascinated by the islands of New York. Manhattan itself is, of course, an island, though not a very convincing one, while Long Island is, as its name suggests, both long and wide. Confusingly, however, Coney Island is nothing of the sort, actually forming part of Brooklyn on the western side of Long Island, while Staten Island – one of New York’s five boroughs – most certainly is, albeit one connected to Manhattan by a ferry and Brooklyn by a bridge.
In addition, there’s a myriad of islands, small and large, uninhabited and habited, within the New York City boundary. When I first got to the city a friend of a friend arranged a tour of Governor’s Island (it’s only open to visitors during the summer months), while at around the same time I re-visited Roosevelt Island, connected to Manhattan via a ‘tramway’ or cable car. Early last week, meanwhile, I caught a subway train and bus to City Island, which forms part of Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. Just 1.5 miles long and half a mile wide, it feels more like New England than New York.
Although unseasonably warm, when I visited it was deserted, and many of the seafood restaurants that lined City Island Avenue were closed for the season. Still, I managed to feast on the largest scallops I’d ever seen at Sammy’s before walking the length of the island, home to around 4,300 New Yorkers. One of them used to be the UK-born writer Oliver Sacks, whose books I devoured as a psychology undergraduate. He used to swim around the island and bought a second home there having spotted it from the shore.
A few days later I made a similar journey to Rockaway Park, a strip of land which looks like an island but isn’t, to the far south of the borough of Queens. En route I checked out the Floyd Bennett Field, site of New York’s first airport. I was the only visitor, and the US park ranger on duty looked pleasantly surprised to have someone to engage with. Later, I returned to Brooklyn on the A train, which worked its way back towards Manhattan via another small island called ‘Broad Channel’, from which I could see beaches and small wooden houses on stilts, a curious sight in one of the world’s most famous urban environments. I’m beginning to think the farther you travel from Manhattan island, the more interesting the city becomes.
I was last in Montréal a decade ago; I briefly stopped in Quebec’s largest city while travelling from Vancouver to Halifax by train. This time I planned to stay for a little longer, a pleasant stop gap en route to Vermont, which lies just across the US-Canadian border to the south, although I nearly didn’t make it on being told I needed a visa when I tried to board my flight at JFK. The definition of stress is standing before a Delta Airlines check-in assistant waiting for an online application to process on a cell phone with a tortuously bad signal – I swear she looked disappointed as it was approved with about 15 minutes to spare.
Montréal is very French, which for some reason I found disorientating. I guess it comes as a surprise in North America, a part of the world associated with the predominantly Anglophone United States. That, of course, is a bone of contention in Quebec, whose
political history – sans language – mirrors that of Scotland. Fittingly, the flag of Montréal includes a thistle alongside an English rose and Irish shamrock, a nod to those who settled in the region after the British displaced the French in the late 18th century; the Musée Stewart on the virtually deserted l’Île Sainte-Hélène included several wooden kilted figures from old tobacco shops.
In her controversial 1980 book, ‘The Question of Separatism – Quebec and the Struggle Over Sovereignty’, Jane Jacobs (who successfully battled the New York planner Robert Moses) argued that the economic development and prosperity of Montréal was contingent upon political independence for the province, without which it had gradually become little more than a satellite of Toronto. She died shortly before I first visited, but it seems to me her analysis was wrong. With independence off the political agenda since the 1995 referendum, the Montréal of 2016 is a thriving metropolis with several major construction projects under way in anticipation of its 375th anniversary next year. Independence is not the economic panacea many assume it to be.
Montréal was, however, freezing, the temperature having dipped to -7 degrees centigrade by the time I boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Burlington, Vermont, where it was a slightly more tolerable -2. This necessitates layers, gloves and hats. I don’t usually wear headgear, but over the past week I’ve gathered together a range of protection, from a (fake) fur-lined deerstalker to a woollen fisherman’s hat I bought in Shetland a few years ago. Practicality trumps aesthetics.
I might have visited Vermont as a kid but I can’t remember, so a few weeks ago it went back onto my (sub) bucket list of US states and I arranged to stop in Burlington before catching the eight-hour 'Vermonter’ Amtrak back to New York’s Penn Station. The small college town had a pleasant ‘vibe’ (as Americans say), but also a slightly smug one. No sooner had I arrived than my Airbnb host was proudly pointing out the offices of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who was mayor of Burlington for most of the 1980s, presumably sustained electorally by its large student population.
And the former Democratic presidential contender clearly left a progressive stamp on the city. Banners near City Hall boasted that Burlington was, according to one survey, the 'Healthiest City in the USA’, while another reminded residents it had come number 1 in the 2010 'Top Small Cities State of Well-Being’ (I wasn’t even sure what this meant). Near the waterfront, meanwhile, a billboard asked: 'Is medical marijuana right for you?’ Vermont, it seems, doesn’t just have a program for ‘symptom relief’ but also a ‘cannabis movement’, which will no doubt be bust combating ongoing anxiety about president-elect Trump in liberal enclaves such as this.