They say money can’t buy you everything. Try telling that to John D. Rockefeller in his heyday. The enigmatic philanthropist was never shy of spending a buck or two, and when visiting the Cloisters, a medieval European monastery perched tantalisingly on the northern-most tip of Manhattan Island, one cannot help but marvel at the power of the Yankee dollar. But wait, I hear you cry, what is a piece of twelfth-century architecture doing in the home of skyscrapers and fuel-guzzling pick-ups? Surely it’s a historical impossibility, a paradox, a hoax even? The short answer is that all and none of these things are true. Those who smell a rat cannot be blamed for their scepticism, and yet they are doing this magnificent spot and its deceased benefactor a great disservice. The Cloisters is, quite simply, a wonderful amalgamation of several different monasteries, churches and chapels from medieval Europe that have been carefully sourced, painstakingly disassembled, lovingly transported and intelligently reconstructed on the other side of the Atlantic in one of New York’s most breath-taking settings. It now houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection and is one of Manhattan’s forgotten treasures.
Artificially pieced together in a manner resembling a sumptuous patch-work quilt, it has the air of a cultural Disneyland – that old idiom ‘only in America’ immediately springs to mind – a kind of McMedieval experience that you would be forgiven for thinking might be best enjoyed with popcorn. But you would be wrong. Once the initial incomprehension has passed, you cannot help being struck by its austere beauty and historical authenticity. Complete with jaw-dropping altar pieces, original cloistered courtyards, and stunning views of the Hudson River from its well-kept gardens, this truly is an oasis of calm in a city of swarming crowds and traffic jams. Such is the 24 hour hum of this great metropolis, there are few places in New York where you could legitimately claim to hear a pin drop. The Cloisters is a welcome exception, and it seems all the more beguiling when you consider the route that must be taken to get there.
Jump aboard the M1 bus on the upper-east side and you will witness a dramatic transition in the space of only ten blocks that, sadly, the vast majority of tourists who stay below the ‘danger line’ of 100th street never get to experience. Crossing into Harlem, the change in fortunes of the inhabitants is sudden and arresting. Ivy clad brown brick apartment buildings soon become decaying high-rise tower blocks, the fronts of boarded up businesses are occupied by shady looking men on stoops, and up-market delis are replaced by fast food joints advertising chicken and biscuits meal combos for $1.99.
“What are you folks doing here?” asks the bemused bus driver with more than a little hint of concern in his voice as he pulls up to the last stop on his route. We are on the wrong bus and obviously in the wrong part of town. Luckily the one we want goes from a stop just around the corner but the driver’s reaction tells a tale of two cities marked by segregation. The same city that is home to Wall Street, one of the most successful money-making machines ever known to man, is also a city wracked by privation and inequality. On the next bus an advert announces that one in four New York children are living below the poverty line. That is a scandalous figure for one of the foremost economic powers in the world, and the sense of injustice is only heightened when you finally step off the bus in the idyllic surroundings of the Cloisters. In many ways, this transplanted piece of European history strikes me as symbolic of both all that is inherently great and gravely disproportionate about America. Whilst men like Rockefeller earn enough money to live out their every whim and fancy, others endure a daily struggle simply to put food on the table and gain access to basic health care. So please, I implore you, visit the Cloisters and gawp at its splendour, but be sure to look beyond the lush greenery and take in the bigger picture.
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