New York has been called the best of cities. New York has been called the worst of cities. For those of us who are disabled, it is both.
But before I tell you why, let me explain up front that I'm not an impartial observer. I'm a native New Yorker, who, for the past 10 years, has used a wheelchair. I was born in Manhattan and I've spent my entire life living or working in or near the Big Town. I love it.
Despite obstacles it throws at handicapped tourists, New York City is worth the visit. No place on Earth beats it for sheer grit, glamour and excitement. No place else has the theater (with bargains for the wheelchair visitor), the museums, the restaurants, the shopping and the endlessly fascinating street life.
As a disabled visitor you're going to have problems, but this article will help you deal with most of them.
Just getting into Manhattan from one of the three major airports can be a hassle, especially if you're not able to transfer from a wheelchair into a regular taxi.
If that's the case, before leaving home arrange for a wheelchair van to meet your flight. The Port Authority (see box for addresses), the agency that runs the airports, will send you a list of companies that provide transportation for disabled visitors.
Finding a hotel
It seems there is no great place for a handicapped person to stay. The accessible rooms in three theater district hotels -- the Marriott Marquis, the New York Hilton and the Novotel -- all have cramped, barely adequate bathrooms. To get to the coffee shop at the Hilton by wheelchair, you have to ride a stinky freight elevator and go through the kitchen.
The Novotel, at about $150 a night for a double room, is the best buy of the three. Other likely places in the neighborhood are the Howard Johnson Hotel, in the same price range, and the newly opened Embassy Suites, which charges $209 on weekdays and $154 on weekends. The chain gives you a suite and throws in a free breakfast and a complimentary cocktail hour.
Before booking a room in any hotel, phone and ask if it has what you require. None of the city's nearly 70,000 hotel rooms have a roll-in shower, according to the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans of America.
New York is trying to make itself more accessible. For years the city has had a policy of adding curb cuts when rebuilding or repairing corners. Even so, there are still a discouraging number of intersections where they're missing. To push around town, you either have to be able to jump curbs by yourself, or have a strong and willing companion.
You can use the buses. More than 85 percent of them are lift-equipped. A few key subway stations now have elevators and ramps. In theory, you could get some places this way, but my advice is: don't try. New York subways give a rough ride and can stop suddenly. The cars lack wheelchair tie-downs.
If you can transfer to a car and have a generous budget, consider using taxicabs. For out-of-towners this often is the quickest and most direct way to get where you're going.
The fastest way to get oriented -- except from January through early March when cold weather shuts it down -- is to take a three-hour, wheelchair-accessible Circle Line cruise around Manhattan (yes, it really is an island). For a $15 fare, you'll get a fact-filled narrative. You'll also glimpse the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Yankee Stadium and the four outer boroughs that, with Manhattan, make up New York City.
The Circle Line boats to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island also are accessible. Both the statue and the recently restored Ellis Island, which was the gateway to America for some 12 million immigrants, are easily toured by the disabled.
Two companies -- Happy Apple Tours and Liberty View Tours -- offer partially accessible tours of the city. Call and make sure what they have meets your needs.
Skip the Empire State Building if you're in a wheelchair. The world-famous, 102-story landmark was opened in 1931, long before architects thought much about wheelchair accessibility. The newer (1979) and taller (110-story) World Trade Center is completely accessible. The view is nothing less than inspiring.
When you leave the World Trade Center, you might want to cross lower Manhattan through the canyons of Wall Street. Early Dutch settlers laid out the narrow, twisting streets in this oldest part of the town.
At the East River you'll find the South Street Seaport, a combination ship museum, shopping mall and historic restoration. Although some of the old ships open to the public aren't accessible, much of everything else is. The famed Fulton Fish Market lies just to the north, so there's wonderful seafood to be had in the area. Try the well-known and moderately priced Sloppy Louie's restaurant.
Discount theater tickets