Saturday, December 15, 2012

New York - yeah, just like I pictured it

Picture: Simon Poulter
New York was - like Stevie Wonder's Mississippi émigré in Living For The City - just as I'd pictured it when I first came here almost 20 years ago.

American cities are like that. You almost know what you're going to get before you get there. What never prepares you is the scale and, in New York's case, the energy. It's hard to describe, but when you're here, you feel it. It pulses from every street and every block, night and day.

Like all great cities New York commands superlative. Even in the face of Chinese urban expansion, New York is still the world's most densely populated city, and it feels it.

It's 12 million citizens may sprawl across five boroughs but for the most part we think about Manhattan, that Daliesque teardrop of an island seemingly built on one flat piece of Lego and piled high with hundreds of multi-story Lego columns sprouting upwards.

23 square miles of steel and concrete, streams of yellow taxis and constant bustle. New York's energy keeps it going 24/7, and that's just one of the reasons why I love this self-styled "greatest city in the world". It is here that epitomises the image of steel canyons more than anything else.

It's here you want to be, whether melting you credit cards in the 5th Avenue boutiques, or doing equal financial damage for a Broadway show ($200 at face value prices to see Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross anyone?), or the needle-bearing haystack that is Manhattan's bewildering away of restaurants.

You can come here for the weekend and just for the hell of it. Because it's a seven-hour flight that makes a weekend trip doable, because - or, in my case, it's just before Christmas and I needed to come back. I've developed a craving for New York. I don't want it all the time, mind, but having last been here just over a year ago - for a memorable birthday on 11.11.11 - I wanted to gulp in another extended breath of New York's chilly winter air and a whole lot of the holiday season.

New York is an incredible hub of world life. From publishing and fashion to music and theatre, more than any other city in the world, it's where the good things in life take place. It's also where some of the less good things in life take place, but as a tourist, there's very little to bring you to Wall Street.

Not far away, however, is a reason to venture south: the 9/11 memorial. It's hard to imagine the Twin Towers that once stood on that plot. But I remember being overawed by the size of the World Trade Center on my first visit here, taking the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island excursion from Battery Park, with the towers in the background.

They looked like steam funnels, representing the toil and graft that New Yorkers put in, regardless of their trade. Exactly a month after 9/11 I was in a taxi coming over one of the bridges from Queens and I was just stunned by the gap in the skyline. 

The absence of those towers made New York's topography look like an old man's teeth with the front set missing. But on that same visit, I got to recognise the real New York: it's not a compressed jungle of anti-social curmudgeons, but a city just getting on with life. To stand on a street corner and watch ordinary people - office workers, shoppers even street hustlers stop and spontaneously applaud a passing fire engine brought a lump to my throat and a simple memory I will never forget. Because that was New York getting back on its feet.

Picture: Simon Poulter

A month ago it was doing it all over again after Sandy tore up the Atlantic states, turning New Jersey and New York upside down in particularly unpleasant fashion. Once again, New York cleaned up and got back on with being New York.

If you're in the privileged position of having holiday days to burn off before the end of a year, a three or even four-day trip to New York is the perfect destination: never too short to miss out on the mustn't-miss attractions, never too long to feel like you're running out of ideas.

It is absurd to think of Manhattan - even at this time of year - as merely an elongated shopping mall. From a European perspective, retail therapy is still the main reason people come. For Brits, the days of 2-for-1 currency exchange are long gone, but with a pound and and even a euro buying you a dollar-and-half, it still makes sense filling up your second permitted suitcase here (another reason to keep the loathsome Ryanair in Europe...).

Picture: Simon Poulter
But once your plastic has been slapped about like La Motta in Raging Bull, there's no shortage of places to go and things to do, depending on your tastes and interests.

First-time visitors will make a beeline for the Empire State Building, but there is just as thrilling an experience to be had at the top of The Rock, the observation deck up on 30 Rockefeller Plaza - yes, 30 Rock.

For culture you have the magnificent Museum of Modern Art, MOMA, New York’s most popular individual attraction hosting more than five million visitors every year. And it's not difficult to see why.

You may want to spend your entire weekend in New York shopping, but do allow yourself some time to come here (and it's open on Sundays, too, so there's no excuse).

Equally, a little bit of Subway time (and I'm not talking about six inch sandwiches) and you can get out and see the bits of Brooklyn, Queens or rustic Staten Island that Sandy left standing.

All three are areas to devote time to: Brooklyn is a city within a city, and as ethnically diverse as any in the fabulous melting pot that is New York itself. And, should you be so inclined, includes Coney Island, the somewhat quaint seaside resort with its fairground rides providing thrill-seeking New Yorkers with a different type of adrenalin rush that that they normally get just crossing the street.

Then there's Queens, New York's dormitory, founded by the Dutch (the influences are still there - Flushing was named after Vlissingen), and the first borough you're likely to see if you fly in via Kennedy airport. Staten Island is a charming, peaceful appendage to New York, more village than urban sprawl, it is a place to pull on walking boots and explore, and it's only a short ride across the bay on the Staten Island Ferry.

Picture: Simon Poulter

For me, the jewel of New York City is Central Park. Plenty of cities enjoy giant green lungs places like this - London's Regents, Hyde and Richmond parks, Berlin's Tiergarten, Amsterdam's Vondelpark, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and so on - but somehow Central Park is the greatest of them all, a beautiful and tranquil oasis in a truly hectic metropolis, curtained by the über-expensive properties of the Upper West and Upper East sides.

Picture: Simon Poulter
Here you can bike ride in safety, stretch your legs and feel at peace with the world, even the at-times crazy world on its borders.

Here you'll also find the tranquil Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon, who was shot dead in front of his apartment building, The Dakota, just across from the park.

New York can be a mad place. Lennon's death no better example of the kind of darkness that can befall America.

20 children and six adults shot dead yesterday morning at a Connecticut junior school demonstrate how that madness never goes away for long. But that should never be a reason not to come here. New York may be loud, brash and intimidating, but it's intoxicating energy is like the metropolitan equivalent of a shot of Red Bull. You would't want to be drinking it all day long, but a blast every now and again does the soul good. It's great to be back.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Simon, we Americans are honoured. Great piece. Happy flying! And happy Christmas. X