Chicago may have been Sinatra’s ‘Kind of Town’ but he knew that if he could make it in New York, he could make it anywhere. And of course New York, New York was Sinatra’s biggest hit. New York, New York: the city so big they had to name it twice. The Great American City, the City that Never Sleeps. Like the Jazz musicians that coined the phrase, it was time for Freddie and I to take a Bite out of The Big Apple.
NYC is by far the largest American City. It incorporates the five boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx, all large cities unto themselves. There are 8.5 million residents speaking 800 different languages and it is very fittingly, the world headquarters of the United Nations. It is the American centre of commerce, finance, art, fashion and entertainment. In the 19th century The Statue of Liberty welcomed the Tired, the Poor, the Huddled Masses. Today she welcomes over 50 million visitors a year and has a GDP of over 1.2 trillion dollars.
We left the gilded tower in Chicago and made the 2 hour flight into New York’s LaGuardia Airport. We climbed into a ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and made our way ‘Across 110th Street’. How many songs have been written about this massive, adrenalin-fuelled metropolis? Our Spanish friend Nando (who works at the U.N.) invited us to stay at his apartment in Manhattan, that lies between the untouchable wealth of the Upper East Side and the rough and rowdy neighbourhood of Spanish Harlem. Horns blasting and sirens screaming we had been thrown directly into the great mix. At first glance, New York is overwhelming and a little scary… even for an old cosmopolite like me!
Just after Memorial Day the city was hot, humid and heaving. We found the local subway stop and made our way to 42nd Street, Time Square and the so called Crossroads of the World. This over amplified, garish mess of neon billboards and tourists touts is my idea of hell. We got the hell out of there, and came to the old/new hip neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen. After a couple of martinis with some locals in the chic bar of The Out Hotel, we had built up enough Dutch courage to take on the town. We continued down to the river and met up with Nando and boarded the 'Destiny' for a sunset cruise up the Hudson, and a fantastic lobster dinner al-fresco. From the peaceful vantage point of the river we felt the glamour of the sleepless city, all lit up with endless possibilities.
The island of Manhattan is where the term “concrete jungle” comes from. 155 blocks of dense buildings with scarcely a blade of grass, except for the giant green lung that is Central Park. Our first morning was spent in these 843 acres of trees, lakes, jogging trails and tranquil glades. New Yorkers take full advantage of it from sunrise to sunset. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this vast green space lying dead centre of the city. Without it, I’m sure the locals would go crazy, and they are well known to be on the edge already. We hailed a taxi from there down to The Village. The cab driver was a huge, excitable black man that took great pleasure in telling us how crazy the people of New York are. I told him we were from London, where we have the greatest respect for our cab drivers. This made him so happy he shouted out, “You are my niggaz!”
In the 60’s Greenwich Village was the domain of poets, dancers, artists and the fledgling gay community. It’s one of the few areas of the city without skyscrapers. Nowadays these narrow leafy streets are home only to the very few that can afford it. We met up with our friend Stephen who gave us the 50 cent tour of the area, culminating with a drink at The Stonewall Inn. This grimy old gay bar was the setting of the Stonewall Riots that kicked off the Gay Rights Movement in June of 1969. In those days, it was normal business practice for the police to raid gay bars to arrest and shame the patrons. On the night of Judy Garlands death, the drag queens in the Stonewall Inn were in no mood for police brutality, and they fought back for the first time. Freddie and I toasted those brave queens that paved the way for our legal marriage last month. We’ve come a long way baby.
Walking up into Chelsea, we stopped briefly outside Carrie’s building, where seven seasons of “Sex in the City” made countless woman flock to New York in search of love and shoes. The latest addition to the city is the High Line Park. Above the hustle and bustle on a disused railway line, this delightful winding park is full of wild flowers, water features and deck chairs for catching some rays. In just a couple of years it has become the symbol for the new greener New York. We took a break like the locals, rolling up our shirts and splashing about in the cool trickling waters.
To round out the evening we made our way to Mid Town, and the impressive roof top terrace of 230 Fifth Avenue. A martini overlooking the sparkling sea of lights, and the iconic Empire State Building right in front of us. Built in 1931 at 102 storeys tall, it was for many years the world’s tallest building. Its fame was secured in 1933 when a giant ape climbed to the top of the Art Deco masterpiece in the ground breaking film “King Kong”. Several blocks away is the Chrysler building. A few floors shorter than the Empire State, with a chrome Art Deco spire meant to evoke the grill of a Chrysler car, it is the favourite of the locals. Next to that is Grand Central Station, the cavernous train station built in 1913 with its mesmerising ceiling of 2500 flickering stars. We stopped for a cheeky nightcap in the Waldorf Astoria hotel, the faded grand dam that lays claim to inventing the Waldorf salad and the Bloody Mary cocktail.
Next morning we were up early to get to Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center site. It took a year and a half to clear the rubble from the Twin Towers, and the site is now a peaceful and beautiful place to be. In the foot print of the Towers is an endless cascade of water flowing down and out of sight. Around the edge are the names of all the nearly 3,000 people that died that horrific day. It’s a very tactile experience to run your hands over the names. Occasionally a rose or a keepsake adorns the name of a loved one. The world’s best architects are building new icons on the site. At 1776 feet tall, One World Trade Center is now finished, while Britain’s Lord Norman Foster is working on Tower Two. Spain’s master Santiago Calatrava is putting the finishing touches on the transportation hub that looks like a massive porcupine from outer space. The last time I was here was in 2002 when it was still a smouldering hole with make shift shrines of photos and wilted bouquets. The transformation is truly inspirational, and a testament to the strength and tenacity of this city.
As it was Freddie’s first time in New York, I had to take him to see the Statue of Liberty. Day tickets to Liberty Island are limited and the queues of tourists are daunting. We took the free alternative, which is a round trip on the Staten Island Ferry, that chugs along very close to The Lady waiting in the Harbour. She has had a makeover, and is looking great for a gal of 128 years. Back on terra firma, we walked over to the next pier to catch the water taxi over to Brooklyn. The views of Manhattan from this vantage point on the East River are the fabulous. It was a gorgeous day, and we strolled back across the Brooklyn Bridge. The so called Eighth Wonder of the World is 1700 feet long with two stone pyres supporting hundreds of steel cables. The same age as Lady Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge is still an epic symbol of the entrance to the city.
Apart from the hell hole that is Times Square, the epicentre of New York is the Rockefeller Center. In 1930 oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller had 228 houses torn down to build a city within a city. There are 14 buildings including the 70 storey General Electric building and the famous Radio City Music Hall. There is a viewing platform called Top of The Rock that swindles $29 off the bleary eyed tourists. We were content to sip cocktails in the famous square surrounded by the flags of the world, listening to cool summer tunes. We met up with our friend Sam and her new baby for lunch in a huge restaurant and fresh food complex called “Eataly”. It’s great to see New Yorkers demanding fresh, organic foods to go along with their greener image. Still, the hot dog stands on every corner and the Jewish deli’s piling on the pastrami are not going anywhere. With 8.5 million mouths to feed, there is room for all. From dim sum in China town to the latest gastro hangouts, we ate well everywhere we went in the Apple.
There is a saying that goes “Live in New York for a couple of years, and it will make you strong. Live in New York too long and it will make you hard”. It is the city of the American Dream, that can quickly become a nightmare. It is a monster of a city, perhaps too powerful for its own good. After the attacks of 9-11, the whole world came together in grief. When Wall Street experienced financial meltdown in 2008, the whole world fell into recession. Good or bad, boom or bust, New York sets the trends and the world follows. I personally could not live in this city, as the pace would do me in. But our four days were fantastic, and I know I will keep coming back. For those bright young things that want to live in the centre of the action, I wish you well. After all, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.