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Exploring New York City From Street-Wise Vantage

June 23, 1991|ROBERT C. SAMUELS | Samuels is a free-lance writer living in Piermont, N.Y.

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 last 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 all the obstacles it throws at handicapped tourists, a New York City visit is worth the trouble. 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.

Of course, just getting into Manhattan from one of the three major airports (Kennedy, La Guardia and nearby Newark, N.J.) 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, the agency that runs the airports, will send you a list of companies that provide transportation for disabled visitors.

It seems that there is no great place for a person who uses a wheelchair to stay. The accessible rooms in three theater district hotels--the Marriott Marquis (1535 Broadway, 800-228-9290), New York Hilton (1335 Avenue of the Americas, 800-445-8667) and Novotel New York (226 West 52nd St., 800-221-3185)--all had cramped, barely adequate bathrooms. To get to the coffee shop at the Hilton by wheelchair, you have to ride a smelly 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 (851 8th Ave., 800-654-2000), in the same price range, and the newly opened Embassy Suites (1568 Broadway, 800-362-2779), which charges $209 on weekdays and $154 on weekends.

Before booking a room in any hotel, it is always a good idea to phone and ask if it has what you require. As far as I could learn, there's not a single roll-in shower in any of the city's nearly 70,000 hotel rooms.

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% of them are lift-equipped and easy to use. A few key subway stations now have elevators and ramps. In theory, you could get some places this way but my advice is not to try. New York subways give a rough ride and can stop suddenly. The cars lack wheelchair tie-downs. Just thinking about bouncing around inside one of those trains starts my palms sweating.

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 . For a $15 fare, you'll get a fact-filled narrative. You'll also glimpse the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Yankee Stadium.

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.

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, twisty 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. A wheelchair theatergoer and a companion can get great seats to some of Broadway's biggest hits for the absolute bargain price of $7.50 each, plus a small service charge. The only catch is that the show has to be in a theater owned or run by the Shubert Organization.

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