New York has an ego as big as the Empire State Building - and
problems to match. Mark Harris reports from the front
line of the most self-obsessed city in the world
Binoculars at Liberty Island ferry
However familiar you are with the literary or cinematic New York, itís louder, brighter, busier and bigger than you could have imagined. The icons are all present and correct, from the gleaming spire of the Chrysler Building to the steam swirling round a hot dog stall on the corner of Fifth Avenue. And New Yorkers themselves have an energy, a buzz, that simply doesnít exist anywhere except between the Hudson and East Rivers. Everyone you meet has a violent opinion about something, whether itís the Clinton scandal, Ďzero toleranceí policing laws or just that youíre getting in their way by gawping at the frenzy around you.
With its heady combination of high finance, trendy vanity and tempting sleaze, New York is a world in itself. Itís a place where you can find, 24 hours a day, absolutely anything worth having, whether itís a piece of ultra-modern art, a new life partner or just the perfect cheeseburger.
I was instantly struck by the cosmopolitan mix of races and cultures, a legacy of the cityís traditional role as a haven for the worldís refugees. This immigration continues, bringing skills and vitality to a city in constant need of rejuvenation, but also fuelling the omnipresent racial tensions. In a city of a thousand nationalities, where half the population are either immigrants or the children of immigrants, it seems incredible to a European that racial segregation is still socially accepted, even encouraged, by some communities.
Today, controversial Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani is determined to drag New York into the twenty first century, whether it likes it or not. He has halved crime, slashed welfare bills and boosted private sector jobs, pulling the city back from the urban decay and Ďwhite flightí that has stricken other US cities. But at what cost? As a visitor to the Land of the Free, I was surprised at the threat of being arrested for crossing the street at the wrong place, and shocked at the compulsory finger-printing of all welfare recipients. New York still has more unemployed than any other American city, with a surprising 100,000 homeless, most of whom are invisible in the face of tough anti-begging and loitering legislation.
Perhaps itís time for the city to grow up a little. Perhaps New York can no
longer afford to be both capital of cool and international financial centre. Perhaps
its very energy is pulling it apart at the seams. In that case, get there now,
while its seductive power to amuse, appal and fascinate is still intact.
Cody, a young mother in the Village, deplored his transport policies; ĎSomething has to be done about the pollution in Manhattan. Asthma is the number one cause of absenteeism from school, and he wants to take away one of our parks to build another road!í Greenwich Village is a long way from the open spaces of Central Park, and even the scrappy 1/3-acre triangle of Canal Street Park is valued by locals. The park is going to make way for an extra couple of lanes on the road to the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey.
But at the very heart of the Village, under the mini-Arc de Triomphe of Washington Square Park, life was looking up. It was once a notoriously dangerous square full of drug dealers, but now mounted police trotted between chess-playing students and old ladies pretending not to notice their dogs foul the flowerbeds. The students are mainly from New York University, whose buildings are scattered throughout the Village. When I passed one, a dreadlocked girl handed me a leaflet from the Students Supporting Our President Association. It read: DONíT IMPEACH CLINTON OVER HIS SEX LIFE. As I still had Chinatown to see, I decided to let him off, as long as he promised not to tell me any more about it on primetime TV.
More than 150,000 Chinese live and work in New Yorkís Chinatown, where I could happily snack on dim-sum and bargain-hunt till my money ran out. Almost anything that can be faked can be bought here, and much more besides. The clothing stores here are even gradually swallowing up neighbouring Little Italy, a process which can only accelerate with changes in taxation from the end of 1999, when sales tax (8.5per cent) on clothes is abolished. New York has already had several dry-runs, week-long Ďtax holidaysí where frenzies of purchasing emptied many of the cityís smaller stores.
The world famous Village Voice magazine
AN INTERVIEW WITH A GREENWICH VILLAGE WRITER
MaryAnn Johanson, writer, 29
Whatís your neighbourhood like? Greenwich Village is great, the street life is wonderful. You walk out your door and there are people from all over the world. I love that. Itís not just tourists, but people who live there, who originally came from anywhere in the world. I was talking to a woman at the bus stop, and she was complaining about being the only white person on the subway car, but I think thatís great. You get such energy from all these different people and the different cultures. Thatís whatís great about the Village.
Is the Village really mixed then? Sure, and the Village is more of a melting pot than some other areas. It attracts a lot of artistic people - you know, people who arenít living there just go to work on Wall Street every day. So it gets a more diverse crowd than other neighbourhoods. And itís even spreading, swallowing up surrounding low-rent areas and growing all the time. Places where you used not to want to go at night are now part of the Village.
Is it expensive to live in the Village? Itís always been expensive to live here, but even more so now that rent control (where the city authorities set an upper limit on rents) has been scrapped. The Village has a lot of yuppy types, although a lot of well-off families live here, too. You do have to be a bit wealthy to afford it, or pile in with some room-mates and find a dump to live in! Thatís too bad.
Whatís the community like? There are still elementary schools all over Greenwich Village, and lots of kids around. Itís very family orientated. Itís a great place to grow up, really safe and with a nice community feel to it. If money was no object, Iíd buy an apartment either here in the Village or on the Upper West Side, which has the same cultural mix. They both feel like small towns, not like the big metropolis - although youíre still right at the heart of the city.
What about bad points? All the tourists! And traffic can be a nightmare. Tourists are where a huge part of New Yorkís income originates, but I hate it when they donít know how to behave. Theyíre slow, they gawk, and they take over our restaurants! As for the traffic, you just canít park here. Itís impossible, unless you want to pay $20 a day or $300-400 a month. Thatís like having to pay another rent check! Itís usually pretty safe, but thereís been some violence towards homosexuals in the Village recently, mostly from kids coming in from the suburbs. But the Village is wonderful, it really is.
Is the Village largely artist types or yuppies? I'd say a combination of both. Greenwich Village can be so expensive that many places are affordable only by people making big bucks. Don't even think about looking for a one-bedroom apartment unless you can spend at least $2000 a month. The East Village has more artsy/student types, because it can be a little cheaper. The East Village really is more bohemian these days.
How do you view New Yorkers in general? I think New Yorkers are busy, always on the run, but more than willing to help a stranger/tourist. New Yorkers love their city and will always take an opportunity to talk it up. Ask an elevator full of New Yorkers for restaurant recommendations, for example, and you'll be inundated with cheerful suggestions.
Are there any bits of the Village that have been really gentrified ie that you wouldn't have visited 5 years ago? It's really the East Village that's gotten somewhat gentrified. The area around Thompkins Square Park used to be a place to avoid, say ten years ago - it was a haven for drug dealers. Now it's cleaned up and the area is much more pleasant. I would have avoided that area before, but it's okay now.
When/why did you move into/leave the Village? I always wanted to live in Greenwich Village - I can't even remember why. Probably
the bohemian atmosphere and the sheer numbers of creative people who've lived
and worked there throughout the city's history. I first lived in the Village on Washington Square Park when I was a student at
NYU from 1987-88. Being in the Village was part of why I chose the school. I loved
it there (the neighborhood, not the school particularly). The park was a bit seedy
then (drugs again) but it wasn't too bad, and there were (still are) great little
cafes and bookstores and so on in the area. When I dropped out of NYU I moved back to my parents' on Long Island for a year
and half before I came back to the East Village, on St. Mark's Place. I just lucked
into a dirt-cheap sublet (started at $400 a month, was up to $450 by the time
I moved out five years later). My mom thought the neighborhood was a bit scary,
and there was some drug dealing in the area. But I always felt safe, especially
since at three in the morning the neighborhood was as busy as mid-afternoon. I
only moved out because I lost the sublet (the primary renter decided to give up
ďMurder and graffiti are part of the same continuum. A climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other.Ē Mayor Giulianiís words send a chill down my spine, but thereís no denying that his policy of Ďzero toleranceí - pursuing petty crimes as well as major ones - has produced results. Murders in New York are down from over 2000 a year in the early 1990s to just 800 in 1997. Reductions in other crimes, from vandalism to drug dealing, are equally impressive.
So when I stepped out of Fordham station in the Bronx, I didnít expect to be sniped at from a drive-by Cadillac or offered crack cocaine. However, I wasnít expecting the pleasant, multiracial suburban neighbourhood I found. The students streaming from the nearby Fordham University didnít even give me - an obvious tourist- a second glance, and the shops lining the streets looked as prosperous as any in Manhattan, if a little scruffier.
It was all very different from the blasted, deserted streets Paul Newman walked in the 1981 film Fort Apache: The Bronx. Then, the South Bronx was a synonym for everything bad about New York: corrupt, indifferent cops, a brutalised, hopeless population and rife gang warfare. But local community leaders, working with federal money, have transformed the blighted cityscape. Now, parks, shelters for the homeless and new housing have replaced the burnt-out cars and crack houses. Borough President Fernando Ferrer has some clever plans for luring businesses back to the Bronx, including sponsored child-care, tying business development grants to employing local homeless adults, and training residents in post-industrial growth areas such as bookkeeping and computer repair.
Life in the Bronx is still pretty hard though, and its culture tends to reflect that. It was here in the Bronx that Africa Bambaata and DJ Herc first experimented with boom boxes, turntables and politically inspired rap, and hip-hop still blasts from shops and passing cars. Entering one of the Bronxís hip-hop encyclopaedic record stores is like visiting a shrine to the genre - I hadnít even heard of half of the artists.
A police crackdown on the other native art form - graffiti - saw over 1500
arrests in 1997, although youíd never guess it from the multicoloured tags still
gracing almost every permanent structure - including the police stations. But
arresting writers isnít the answer, insists Hunts Point resident Tats Cru. Instead,
he teaches classes in graffiti art and arranges for young writers to work on legal
projects. The Phun Factory in Long Island City offers similar opportunities for
aspiring writers - and both localities have seen a decrease in tagging and unsightly
marks on walls.
A neat Bronx website at www.bronxmall.com
INTERVIEW WITH A LOCAL BRONX GUY
Alex Martinez, cab driver, 29
Where do you live in the Bronx? I live in Bainbridge, an area thatís traditionally very Irish. But my momís American and my dad was born in Mexico - but thatís New York for you! In my area, there are probably more African-American and Irish than anything else. Itís great having the mix, you never quite know what to expect. We all get along OK.
What makes the Bronx different from the rest New York? Wow! Where do I start? Obviously, a lot of the Bronx is very residential. We donít have the theaters and art galleries of downtown Manhattan, but there is a real neighborhood spirit. Thereís a lot of youth groups and church stuff. I donít get into it that much, as I work long hours, mostly in the City. By the time I get home, Iím too tired to do much.
Do you feel safe in the Bronx? Sure. There are some bits of the South Bronx that are still pretty bad, but mostly itís OK. I was born here, so I guess Iím used to it really. They did catch some drug dealers down the road from my apartment recently, but mostly itís quiet. Itís in my cab that I gotta worry; there are a lot of weird, stressed-out people in New York. Even though I mostly do private hires, like for businesses, I still get some very strange people in my car. I never had a gun pulled on me, though. Itís really not as bad out here as the news media makes out. Itís mostly regular people living regular lives.
What are the schools like? You know, we get a lot of kids from Manhattan coming to school up here. Itís like, thereís less violence and drugs in schools out here. Yeah, the schools are pretty good. I graduated high school, but didnít go to college. I couldnít really afford it at the time, and I feel too old now. Can you do a degree in driving, anyway?
Is there much to do in your neighborhood? Plenty of Irish bars! Theyíre good for meeting girls. My dad used to take me to Yankee games when I was a kid. The stadium is pretty close, but I donít go there so much any more. Now, I like visiting the gym, working the weights. And there are some good restaurants, cheaper than in Manhattan - and more real if you know what I mean. They just started shutting the Grand Concourse to traffic on Sundays, which is great. The buildings are all from the Ď20s and people take their kids there to rollerblade or whatever. They should do that more - although it makes driving a drag.
Do Manhattan people look down on people from the Bronx? I think most New Yorkers have a "live and let live" attitude. If you don't bug
me, I won't bug you. I don't think in general city folks would have much of an
opinion one way or the other.
In the rarefied atmosphere of the Upper East Side, itís as if the free-spending Eighties never stopped. Perhaps you fancy an omelette? The Mme Romaine de Lyon restaurant serves over 500! Or a little exercise with your meal? No problem, try Il Vagabonde, they have a full-size Italian bowling court behind the bar. Eventually I found Papaya King on 86th, where ďthe best hot dog in the cityĒ and a big glass of papaya juice was less than $3. But who actually chooses to spend the average $3million, in cash, that sellers of a three-bedroom Upper East Side apartment can demand? A recent survey showed that this relatively small area (with only 4% of New York households) nevertheless accounts for over a fifth of all lawyers, PR executives and management consultants in the city. And thatís hardly surprising, given that a newly qualified lawyer can demand an annual salary of over $100,000 on Wall Street, and an investment banker probably twice that.
In fact, the average household income on the Upper East Side is a staggering $230,000 a year, over five times that of other New Yorkers. But money alone canít guarantee a place in Upper East Side society- many rich celebrities have been denied apartments by older residents. Barbara Streisand, Mick Jagger and even late President Richard Nixon were all refused admission by prestigious co-operatives on Fifth Avenue.
But the truth is, big money makes for a bland city. The sterile streets of
the Upper East Side have little to interest anyone other than purse snatchers
or fashion addicts. Even the wonderful museums - the two million square feet of
treasures that comprise the Met and the thoroughly modern Guggenheim - have an
artificial feel to them, made-up tourist attractions in the middle of an aesthetic
desert. There hasnít been a murder in this neighbourhood in years, and if the
area seems immune from the problems of New York City, it also lacks the dynamic
atmosphere of Greenwich Village or the Bronx. In fact, it feels more like a place
where the rich go to escape the city itself, and whereís the fun in that?
Danielle Tropea, IT worker, 23
Who lives on the Upper East Side? Is it just Wall St golden boys, banker types, lawyers and doctors? I lived in a part of the Upper East Side called Yorkville, which used to be full of German immigrants and is east of Lexington Avenue and north of 79th Street. Now it's chockfull of people in their twenties who seem to make a fair amount of money, but not too much. It's one of the more affordable areas on Manhattan- not cheap, but not ridiculous, like parts of Fifth Avenue. These are probably the guys and gals in Wall Street and in advertising who are working their way up.
Do kids have to be careful in the streets, even in the rich neighbourhoods? Yorkville is pretty safe, as is most of the Upper East Side. I never felt in any danger. Even so, I lived on 89th and First avenue, and would try to keep to the really busy streets.. I avoid Central Park after dusk at all costs; it's not a safe place for a kid or a woman at night. There were a number of rapes in a four block radius of my apartment, but they happened at all times of the day. There was one guy who was suspected of most of them, the East Side Rapist, who was never caught and who was in action for at least a few years. That sure made me nervous.
Are the local schools all elitist, prestigious and expensive? The prep (private) schools are elitist and expensive, but kind of a joke. They are full of lots of rich kids goofing off and doing a lot of drugs. A good friend of mine went to Rudolf Steiner on the Upper East Side, and there were a lot of really rich kids who did way too many drugs. The good thing about Steiner was that gave financial aid, so there was a population of more middle class kids. Unfortunately, the poorer kids were pressured to get into expensive clothes and activities by the richer ones. If you're a smart kid in NYC who can't afford or don't want to go to prep school, you generally end up at either Stuyvesant in Tribeca (near Greenwich Village) or Bronx Science in the Bronx.
Did you go to private school? No, I went to Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, Queens instead. I feel it wasn't that great a school because it was so small and didn't have that much money. For example, I took the same art class three times because I wanted to take art but they offered only one curriculum! Meanwhile, my friend who went to Steiner got to do amazing art projects all of the time, and ended up in a really good art college.
Do you feel growing up in NY makes you different from other young Americans? I think that middle class kids who grow up in NY are more sophisticated than kids from middle America. There is so much more happening in NY, it's so busy and full of cultural things. People who make an effort to live in Manhattan value these cultural advantages and subject their kids to it. If you grow up in suburbs, even if your parents are into the arts, you just don't get the chance to participate.
Many were fleeing poverty, religious persecution or political turmoil, and arrived in the United States with little more than the clothes on their back. Within sight of the famous Statue of Liberty, the immigrants were processed and naturalised as American citizens, before leaving to set up home all over the country.
New York was an extremely popular choice for immigrants, as many nationalities soon formed close communities in neighbourhoods of the big city. These communities helped newcomers and helped maintain links with families in the old country. This mix of languages and cultures has made New York the colourful, exciting city it is today.