Homeless in Chicago

Street life

City streets are home

life’s bitter, never better

and passers by kin

— — —

Photo: A homeless person near the Chicago Riverwalk

Tower of freedom

Say Miami and people reply with, “Beach, please.”

Yes, from what I saw in my brief time in Miami, the city is all about its many beaches, suntans, margaritas, and coastal souvenirs.

But what if you don’t like all of the above?

That was me in Miami. A vegan in the seafood city. A park walker among shopaholics. The best thing about it, though, about being an outcast, is that you find places no one else talks about.

Like The Freedom Tower, for instance.

An art museum and the headquarters of a few departments of the Miami Dade College, the Freedom Tower was once the epicentre of Miami’s people.

When I first set eyes on the building, I knew nothing about it. My map informed me it was a museum, and curious to learn the city’s culture - and more so to avoid standing under the sun - I entered the intricate architectural marvel. I’d noticed from afar that it was a proper tower. Although smaller in diameter than the buildings I’d seen in New York City and Chicago, it’s just as tall.

Paying a rather hefty entrance fee of $12, I went it with a confused mind. Perhaps I over paid, I wondered. I worry about entrance fees where ever I go, not because of the price but because I hate leaving thinking I’d wasted it. The thought lingered as I accepted the brochures from staff, listening as they explained what I should expect to see before letting me explore.

Constructed in 1925, The Freedom Tower was the headquarters of The Miami News, which the publication vacated in 1957 as refugees from Cuba flocked the city and the government needed a place to process them.

As I stood there watching vintage photographs of the people who’d fled Fidel Castro’s regime to come to Miami instead, I felt an intense coldness replace the heat in my body. Children torn away from their parents, families shattered, lives disrupted, these people had come to the only place that’d take them. And there I was, half a century later, on the same spot that the early residents of Miami had bled and wept.

It was a powerful moment of realisation. Although the government sold the building to private buyers afterwards, it still stands as a haunting reminder of the city’s history. It’s no wonder that Spanish is such an integral part of Miami - airports, stores, street signs all had a Spanish version of their English text and messages.

Concluding that I hadn’t wasted my money at all, I moved on to other exhibits. Sure, I could’ve learnt the history and, perhaps, even seen the photos online. However, there’s a strange comfort about being in the presence of history.

The New World Mural 1513

The New World Mural - The Freedom Tower, Miami

The New World Mural – The Freedom Tower, Miami

The building’s design included the original but painters had to recreate it in 1988 to protect it from ruin.

Kislak Center

This one showcased hundreds of artefacts and tools used by early settlers of Miami, including cultural representations from ancient civilisations, as well as paintings and statues of olden traditions like games, meditation behaviours, and social gatherings. Original copies of history books and writing samples, and even copies of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island.

By the People

By the People - An exhibition at The Freedom Tower, Miami

By the People – An exhibition at The Freedom Tower, Miami

This is an entire floor dedicated to social and technological advancements in the US. It was perhaps the most interesting and surprising part of my visit to The Freedom Tower. It showcases social developmental proposals from individuals and organisations. Some of them were just plans but some were in production.

Examples include, an urban housing plan for California, an upgraded city plan for Detroit, eco-friendly gear and cycles for farmers, waste management systems, abortion awareness campaigns, hydrology development plans for LA, and even a proposal to revamp windows in prisons to improve inmates’ morality.

These stunning proposals made me wonder how much the world is changing and how less we’re aware of it. New home designs, architecture plans, systems for police personnel protection, smart vehicles, all of which were a glimpse of our potential and the possible future. Humans are incredible, and the mind’s capabilities transcend the impossible.

If only we put that to good use, we’ll leave the world a far better place than we found it. Perhaps humanity isn’t lost after all. If only -

A local pedicab guide in Central Park, Manhattan, New York City

Human hunger

Soothing, a joy ride

steaming, a cup of coffee

one’s treat is one’s meal

First look, NYC

Sometimes we expect so much from life that we don’t believe reality when it stares us in the face. Visiting New York City was like that for me.

It wasn’t my first time in the US. I’d already been to Pasadena, Pleasanton, Oakland, Chicago, Portland, and Seattle. Coming from a third-world country, I’d already seen impeccable street order, clean pathways, organised traffic, and some cheery baristas. And so when my work trip landed my in NYC, I felt excited to see this greatest city in the world. From the airport, we drove towards 8th Avenue where we were to stay. It was the heart of the city, from what I knew, with Times Square and Fifth Avenue only a few blocks away.

NYC bridge

Williamsburg Bridge, NYC

However, before I set my eyes on either, I had other stuff to drop my jaw at—like the eleven road lanes I came across at one point on the highway. Home has two lanes on the highway for most routes, and four on the popular ones. And even that would be a squeeze. To see eleven vehicles driving parallel to each other, without honking, without breaking lanes, without swerving and swirling to overtake each other, was more than mesmerising. At long last, I began to understand the magnitude of the city I had flown into. As our driver explained the many landmarks we passed, my eyes never left the street. We cruised by the US Open tennis grounds as cars traffic was beginning to seep into the grounds—it was the opening day of the tournament, as our driver informed us, and people showed up four or five hours in advance.

We drove over the Williamsburg Bridge, with me googling at the Manhattan Bridge on the left. I crunched low on my seat to see the top of the highest building, swallowing hard when I heard what it’d cost to live there.

I hadn’t even made it into the city but I’d already felt overwhelmed.

And then we reached the city. We drove through 6th Avenue because our driver decided to show us some more extravagant buildings—buildings I’d remember forever, but don’t know the names of. Nevertheless, when we turned the corner, slowing down, I couldn’t wait to explore the city.

Eighth Avenue, NYC

Eighth Avenue, NYC

Trash. Uh oh. My beautiful image of the US was tearing at the seams. The street groaned with trash bags on either side, and in front of our hotel. Gulping down disappointment and immense surprise, I decided to ignore it. I’m used to far more trashy streets at home with cows, dogs, and goats ravaging the garbage bags on the streets—at least these are still intact, I told myself.

About 30 minutes later, my colleague and I set out to see what’s so great about the flashy NYC.

Our first stop was Times Square.

Times Square, NYC

Times Square

All my life, I’d never seen so many lights, stores, and advertisements in one place. I tried and failed (many times) to capture the whole thing on camera. I tried panoramas and videos, but realised that even though I can capture the buildings and the life of Times Square, I never can freeze its soul on a photo. I’m not much into shopping, and so I didn’t even feel like going into the stores, but I did linger breathing in the excitement. It seemed like there were so many people with various interests, and they all had something or the other to do in the area. Aside from the vanity shopping, individual artists displayed myriads of talent—from paintings and carvings to portraits and other random crafts, I saw so many things, objects, on sale. And to help lighten the tourist’s wallet there were “I Love NYC” stores selling countless souvenirs and merchandise. It was the first time that I’d seen a merchandise store on every other block. It’s an industry by itself, and as a chain of restaurants, it breeds on every street corner.

Broadway and Fifth Avenue weren’t far away.

We walked along the streets observing, taking in the grandeur as it swallowed us like a glacier. Every building was big, and every street crowded with tourists. And every street corner sported a few overflowing trash cans. Soda cups littered the roads, and musicians played unbeatable beats. One woman even broke into impromptu sing alongs and dance. It was 10 pm, and my parents thought I was fast asleep.

I felt as awake as ever, though. I’d woken up at 4 am and travelled through for most of the day, but I still didn’t need coffee to keep me going. The energy around me bubbled all the time, coating me in its enamel glow.

By the time we walked past The Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Centre, I didn’t even know the difference between one building and another. They were all big and grand, beautiful and gawk-worthy, but that was all.

That was all those buildings were to me, but for most people, tourists, visiting NYC, these buildings meant so much more. They are the epitome proof of their visit. The views from above the buildings are to swoon for, I’ve heard. Perhaps, they are. But as I walked around these commercial buildings designed and ticketed to attract tourist wealth, I realised how much I wasn’t a tourist. I don’t need to go up the Empire State Building to experience NYC. There’re so many other ways, other places, other experiences worth cherishing.

Like the Grand Central Terminal, for instance. Which I’ll relive in a separate post.


Sunrise in Chicago

Sunrise in Chicago

Tiny ray of hope

visible sun, only just

a high-rise city