Welcome to Gothamist Reviews, in which a many-year resident of our illustrious city voluntarily visits famed tourist destinations she has purposefully avoided all this time, for journalism and for kicks.
The Statue of Liberty reportedly required 300 different hammers, more types of hammers than I even knew existed, to build. She gets hit by lightning pretty much constantly, but has stood unburnt for over 100 years, perhaps protecting the haunted pirate treasure some say sits buried under her base. She has been besieged by German saboteurs in real life and suffered more cinematic destruction than maybe any other monument. Before the world gazed upon her behemoth copper form, cresting 305 feet tall out of New York harbor, the French masses beheld her lonely metal head, severed from her towering body. When workers attached that same noggin to her neck some time later, they failed to center it on her shoulders, yet despite the asymmetry—and despite the whole host of ghosts that are rumored to reside in her crown—she projects a dignity that compels people to heap meaning at her size 879 feet.
Pieces uncrated on Liberty Island, 1885. (NYPL)
It's a long list of achievements, to be sure, but as I ferried toward Liberty Island (formerly Bedloe's Island) on my first-ever visit, I found myself disappointed at what is either a long-running trick of my own imagination, or a cheap gimmick by tchotchke makers who've manipulated her proportions to make her look more impressive than the hunk of granite on which she stands. "She's basically half pedestal," I groused to my companion, photographer Tod Seelie, sounding eerily like my sister who, after touring Versailles as a teen, returned to report that there weren't even that many mirrors.
Seelie aptly observed that "no one's interested in the pedestal," but maybe they should be. Historians may disagree with me on the finer points here, but the way I like to think about it, America had just one job in accepting this gift from the French—effectively a gold star in the shape of a hulking metal woman, awarded to our nation for having sorted out (debatable) our democratic differences in a punishing Civil War—and that was to give her a place to plant. Never a nation to be outdone, we went all in, enlisting Richard Morris Hunt to build this extravagant present the grandest pedestal the world had ever seen, probably. Newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer bullied the bourgeoisie into pouring money into the project (for the good of the country, of course) while French architect Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel built our dignified mother a steel skeleton, which sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dressed in thin (at 2 mm, it's about as thick as two stacked pennies) copper skin.
The French then packed her across the Atlantic in 300 pieces, on a ship that nearly sank. And finally, with her commemoration by then-President Grover Cleveland on October 28, 1886, an icon was born: "Liberty Enlightening the World," "The New Colossus," Lady Liberty herself, looming over our southerly waters with a little help from an enormous cinderblock.
No one else seemed to feel shortchanged by her stature: As we pulled up alongside her right flank, a flock of True Patriots nearly jostled the sandwich out of my mouth in their haste to secure prime photo-taking positions. This was about what I expected, and the primary reason I have never hauled myself over to Liberty Island: It is a pain in the butt, even if you do enjoy seafaring.
The Gothamist offices are a relatively convenient walk down to Battery Park, where you catch the water chariot, plus Seelie and I made our voyage on a frigid day in May, so this was not too unwieldy a production. I imagine, though, that if you opted to visit during peak season—on average, 12,000 people descend on Liberty Island daily, according to Ranger Danelle Simonelli, with numbers climbing as high as 25,000 visitors during the summer; just way too many tourists for a tiny rock to accommodate, particularly during the sweaty months—the line to clear the TSA-type security setup and board your boat would be harrowing.
(Tod Seelie / Gothamist)
Wobbling off the ferry, its gangway rolling on a formidable wake as we docked, I dodged selfie stick after selfie stick as my compatriots posed with the newly minted cherry blossoms dotting the monument's border. It had not occurred to me that the Statue of Liberty would be a thirst trap, but then, I suppose anything can be a thirst trap if you set your mind to it. According to Simonelli, the Statue of Liberty has no official policy on selfie-taking, outside of forbidding visitors from jabbing their wands out any of the crown's 25 windows. Setting aside the fact that this is the Statue of Liberty and widely agreed to be significant, I can understand the appeal of photography here: The fuzzed green of Lady Liberty's copper coating (verdigris if you're fancy) makes her look like a velvet version of herself. Along the path circling her base, masses huddled against an unseasonably brisk sea breeze; souvenir photo vendors proffered a basket of acid-green foam crowns (pro-tip: You should probably dig to the bottom if you're going to jam one of these absorbent props on your head); water swirled around a dark hump near the shore that I'd hoped would be an urban whale, but turned out to be rock.
There's only so much time you can spend craning your neck up at a national monument before you feel compelled to climb it, so Seelie and I made our way into the pedestal, ascending the stairs that split the brutalist bank vault of a lobby and mounting... maybe 215 steps? Not very many steps, about as many as it takes me to walk from my desk to the office kitchen and back again, but then there we were, suddenly wedged with the handful of other visitors on the pedestal's narrow outdoor walkway, staring up Lady Liberty's sleeves in wonder and then over the pedestal's edge in horror, because although the trip up feels piddling, once you get out in the open air you realize just how dangerously high you've come. Your vertigo kicks in as you imagine a strong wind pitching you over the barrier and onto the stony expanse so many stories below, and you won't stop reeling for hours, nor cease regretting the decision to shove that turkey-and-mayo into your face, as it will surely come chundering back up on the return voyage. This was perhaps my favorite trick of the Statue of Liberty, her ability to spatially disorient you through her elusive scale.
Mercifully, tickets to the crown sold out months before we made our coverage plans, absolving me from hauling my woozy head to dizzying new heights. And fortunately, I think, no one but workers and select VIPs get access to the torch: A source close to the Statue of Liberty told me that maintenance on the Lady's arm requires a brave few to shimmy up a rickety ladder inside a near-vertical tube that sways with the weather. Actually, the whole statue sways with the weather, my source says, and if not for the support beams running Lady Liberty's length and anchoring her to the pedestal, Hurricane Sandy may have carried her off. (Simonelli confirmed that the movable chains that lie at Liberty's feet did not wave madly in Sandy's gales like angry snakes, as you might have hoped, but remained "firmly affixed to the copper 'skin' that forms the statue.")
(Tod Seelie / Gothamist)
Curious to know how my fellow Statue-goers felt about their monument experiences, I polled the group. A woman who asked me to take a photo of her and her husband described Liberty as "very impressive, very emotional," evocative of our elemental, and arguably most tenuous, national values. Also, her spouse added, "it's a lot bigger than the one in Paris," so... Suck it, France.
Among the many tourist sites they'd visited on their New York City trip, a trio of young men from Canada told me Lady Liberty ranked just behind Times Square ("very vibrant") and all of Queens ("a good vibe"). Asked what she might do to better compete with Queens, one of these students explained that, while the statue may be "the foundation of America," you "can't put a club here, you know?"
What the Statue lacks in nightlife, she makes up for in amenities: The brand new museum recently opened on the island, for example. It hadn't opened when I visited, but the relics left on-view in the old museum during the transition hold a hell of a lot of promise: Never have I ever seen so many Potato Jesus-type renderings of the Colossus's stately face, melted and bloated as if by a child's scrawling hand. Full points for these highly meme-able arts alone, I say.
Potato Liberty, top left. (Photos by Claire Lampen and Tod Seelie / Gothamist)
There's also a lively gift shop, featuring an immobile animatronic Eiffel and shelves overflowing with $50 snow globes and assorted crap that confirmed my theory about some souvenir-makers playing it fast and loose with the statue-pedestal ratio.
The Crown cafe, meanwhile, offered calorie-counted items only loosely pegged to the theme: For $12.95, you can purchase a Torch Spicy Chicken Sandwich, or for a mere dollar more, you may enjoy a New York Burger, basically a pile of pastrami atop a regular burger, a big meat mountain in reward for your exertions. For the more discerning palate, there's a sub sandwich and sushi booth, as well as lobster rolls. Sitting in the cafeteria area—atop pleather cushions the size and shape of cylindrical lumbar pillows that force you into a pleasingly chiropractic position; under a ceiling hung with big bugle bubbles; with "Glory, glory Hallelujah" assaulting your eardrums—you might wash down your feast with Statue of Liberty-branded water or a cup of coffee Seelie said tasted somewhere between instant and stale Starbucks.
Bobbing home on the ferry, I considered how I would rate the Statue of Liberty: I appreciated the effort to insert alternative activities into an experience that, admittedly, would be pretty one-note if you didn't get tickets to climb inside the statue. Despite the arduous commute, I tend to enjoy a boat ride, even under gray skies and chilling mists. And for all my initial disappointment, I ultimately applauded the way the Statue sneakily played with proportions and space, as if she'd heard me scoffing out there on the water and decided to rub my face in it. Would I go back, though? Unlikely, unless of course there's a private showing of those Ecce Homo-esque Liberty sketches. Those alone are worth the trip.
RATING: 🗽 🗽 🗽 🗽 🗽 🗽 🗽 7 out of 10 crowns, I will not be taking questions at this time