Proud in the Big Apple, guide to NYC

Thu. June 15, 2017 12:00 AM
by Ross Forman

NEW YORK CITY – There's just something about this city that drives people here – in droves, and oh-so-often. So many visitors from around the world cannot get enough of The Big Apple – its amazing buildings, the boatload of Broadway hits, the beloved Yankees baseball team and even its specialty-style pizza, among hundreds of other accolades, landmarks and must-see destinations.

There also is something about New York City that drives others away. As fast and as quick as some want to board a flight to LaGuardia Airport, others can't get out of NYC fast enough.

I'll admit, I long have been one to skip visiting New York City, and any business trips that took me here were simply in and out, nothing more. New York City is the most populous city in the U.S., with its near-9-million residents – and I long wanted no part of it.

That's changed over the past couple of years.

I now want to go back, again, soon, immediately if I could.

Maybe I needed to have a few more bites of the Big Apple to truly appreciate it, but I am hooked. I'll come back to visit a lot more often, guaranteed. I had a fun, touristy weekend in 2015, and a better experience in 2016. I now can't wait for my upcoming 2017 weekend getaway to New York City.

My 2016 experience started at the W New York, at 541 Lexington Ave., where class was met with incredible customer service, meticulous attention to detail, extraordinary comfort ...and a super cool, yet small, lobby bar that had some creative cocktails. Rasha Sokkar, whose business card boasts her as the Rooms Control Talent Coach, greeted me upon arrival, made sure my room was flawless, which it was, and was warm, friendly and outgoing throughout my stay.

Then again, Sokkar was just living up to the tradition of all W Hotels.

"W is so much more than a hotel company; we are a lifestyle brand (that) embodies the spirit of those who choose to stay with us," said Anthony Ingham, Global Brand Leader, W Hotels Worldwide. "We share our guests' love of fashion, music, and design – and weave these passions into experience at all of our hotels."

The four W Hotels in New York City offer unique Pride packages for the late-June festivities. W Hotels are, quite possibly, the most gay-friendly properties anywhere, especially in NYC.

"From the very beginning, W has been an inclusive brand and one of the first to market directly to gay travelers," said Ingham, who is openly gay. "Our brand was coming-of-age while LGBT rights became a national topic and we led the way in the hospitality industry by embracing all travelers, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, long before our competitors."

In 2011, for instance, the W Hotels in New York City were the first to offer same-sex wedding packages when New York State passed marriage equality. W Hotels was also the first hotel brand to have a presence in New York's Gay Pride Parade.

"We have always been 'out' about our support for LGBT rights and a longtime supporter of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and I'm incredibly pleased with the success of TURN IT UP FOR CHANGE, a fundraising and awareness initiative we launched last year with HRC to support the fight for nationwide LGBT equality and marriage rights," Ingham said. "It was a personal mission for me because I directly benefited from the Marriage Equality Act that New York State passed in 2011."

Ingham spearheaded TURN IT UP FOR CHANGE, a campaign that included Grammy and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson, who lent her support and voice to the cause with private performances, a music video shot at W Hollywood (which was later nominated for an MTV Video Music Award for "Best Video with a Social Message"), and a surprise set at W Dallas during one of the first legal same-sex marriages in the state of Texas.

"The campaign was a rousing success for us as a brand and of course we were thrilled to have even a voice in the fight that led to the Supreme Court's landmark same-sex marriage decision," in June 2015, Ingham said.

W Hotels offer a range of special discounts and packages to all guests, not discounts offered to people based on their sexual orientation, Ingham noted. "However, we have marketing and fundraising campaigns, like TURN IT UP FOR CHANGE, that speak directly to the LGBT audience in a more direct way. In addition, we have always ensured that our programming is inclusive." Case in point, the Wed Your Way (W's wedding experiences) has long included same-sex couples.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, the parent company of W Hotels, has achieved a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index for the past 10 years, underscoring the company wide commitment to diversity and equal rights.

W Hotels last year partnered with irreverent multimedia artist Baron Von Fancy for a trio of exclusive Snapchat filters to support the ongoing efforts of HRC. W commissioned Von Fancy to create three eye-catching pieces of original art in his signature bold graffiti lettering, which were turned into exclusive Snapchat filters.

For a limited time after the filters launched, $1 was donated to HRC whenever someone used the filter at or around a W Hotel in the U.S.

"My work says what people sometimes think they can't say out loud, but W guests are bold and audacious and don't shy away from sharing how they feel. Having W put my work on Snapchat helps spread the message even further, and I love that," Von Fancy said.

My Big Apple

I'm going to pick 10 must-see places in New York City and know for a fact that no one will agree. With a city as diverse as NYC, I could pool 100 visitors and none would have the same 10. So, here's mine, in no particular order:

1) Baseball – The options are the Mets and the Yankees, but there really is only one choice: the Yankees. Tradition, pride and passion, plus pinstripes. So many of the game's greats have played for the Yankees, winners of 27 World Series championships.

2) Broadway – Go see a musical, or two. Heck, hit three if you can. There are so many, and so many amazing shows.

3) Central Park – Go for a walk or a run, maybe rent a bicycle to make your way around, but just be sure to bring your smart phone; you definitely will want to take pictures. Many claim Central Park is a magical place amid the hustle and bustle of the city. I'll say, it for sure is special and relaxing.

4) The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum – Located in Lower Manhattan, this must-visit stop preserves the history of the attacks on the World Trade Center, and documents the significance of those events through building remnants, personal artifacts, first-person accounts and multimedia displays. Take a guided tour of the museum's memorial exhibition and three-part historical exhibition, which commemorates the 2,983 people who were killed, honors those who risked their lives to save others, and reflects on the courage and compassion shown in the aftermath.

5) Grand Central Station – Located in the heart of downtown Manhattan. Go for the beauty of the building alone, but then realize this is an operating train station. History in a majestic, timeless setting.

6) Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island – Take the 3 ½-hour guided tour, with priority boarding on the ferry from Manhattan. Visit Lady Liberty, including the observation decks, then ferry to Ellis Island and learn about the millions who arrived here between 1892 and 1954 in hopes of living the American dream.

7) Times Square – Am sure this will draw negative comments, just for being on my list. But yes, it is a must-visit for NYC first-timers. Filled with shops, restaurants, office buildings and ridiculously-sized flashing, neon billboards ...and insane crowds.

8) Wall Street – This is, of course, the financial heartbeat, home to the New York Stock Exchange, where visitors can witness the wild pace of stock trading.

9) Chinatown – Located on NYC's Lower East Side, I've always found Chinatown to be entertaining, at the minimum. A fun, casual walk around fruit and veggie street vendors. Stores are super cheap to ultra-high-end. Dim Sum is a must.

10) The Stonewall Inn – If only for historical reasons, this bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan is an absolute must. After all, it is the site of the Stonewall riots of 1969, widely considered to be the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for gay and lesbian rights in the U.S. On June 23, 2015, The Stonewall Inn was the first landmark in New York City to be recognized by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on the basis of its status in LGBT history, and on June 24, 2016, the Stonewall National Monument was named the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to the LGBTQ-rights movement.

Proud In The Big Apple

New York City Pride is a late-June, multi-event festival of the rainbow, kicking off on Friday, June 16, with a rally as community activists, organizers, politicians, and more make their voices heard.

The first NYC Pride Rally occurred one month after the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, when 500 people gathered for a "Gay Power" demonstration in Washington Square Park, followed by a candlelight vigil in Sheridan Square. NYC Pride has continued this proud tradition by hosting the event in various locations throughout the city.

Other area events associated with New York City Pride include the Pride Luminaries Brunch (June 18), Family Movie Night (June 20), the Village Voice Pride Awards (June 21), the VIP Rooftop Party (June 24), Youth Pride (June 24), and ultimately, The March, which steps off at 12 noon.

The first March was held in 1970 and has since become an annual civil rights demonstration. Over the years, its purpose has broadened to include recognition of the fight against AIDS and to remember those lost to the illness, violence and neglect.

The March is a celebration of lives and community, organizers said.

In 2016, there were over 350 unique marching contingents, representing a vast array of nonprofits, community organizations, corporate partners, small businesses, political candidates and activists. With more than 80 floats making the trek down Fifth Avenue, last year's March was one of the largest ever.

The 2017 Grand Marshals are the American Civil Liberties Union, Brooke Guinan, Krishna Stone and Geng Le.