No single fact, anecdote or theory can adequately explain New York City. The State is known as the Empire State, though it has often been a refuge and lavishly commemorates the religion of freedom that so many Americans subscribe to. A river of money runs through it, though the people who fulfil the famous maxim that ‘the business of America is business’ are equally addicted to sport, all kinds of which are on constant loops in the city’s thousands of bars, music, theatre and education. It is one of the most densely populated urbanised areas in the developed world, and yet not only has the great Central Park been carved out of the rocks of Manhattan, but sports fields are dotted around areas like the South Street Seaport, community gardens of varying degrees of cultivation abound and all five boroughs have their public parks. It is known as the city that never sleeps, and it tries damn hard not too, but there is a big intake of breath as the weekend rolls around and the deli’s advertise; brunch, 12-4.
Building the Metropolis
Recessions are not unknown to New York – the seventies saw a noted decline leading to notorious problems with crime and dilapidation. But New York’s attitude is to rough them out. The Empire State and Chrysler Buildings both emerged from the Great Depression, thrown up in competition with each other on cheap labour.
For the most part, however, New York has ridden a constant boom. Manhattan has ploughed its considerable wealth into public works – the Lincoln Centre on Broadway is the elite cultural heart of the city, while the art deco public library’s main building sits grandly set back off Fifth Avenue. At the end of the nineteenth century plans were adopted to develop a metropolis on the Upper West Side, just below Harlem. In addition to the Ivy League Columbia University and St Luke’s Hospital they started building the Cathedral of St John the Divine. Intended to be the largest place of worship in the world, this massive building is still being completed 120 years later, with war, bankruptcy and fire all part of its peculiarly modern history.
Then there are those monuments to commerce, the skyscrapers. Starting with the Flatiron on Madison, moving uptown and then to the Financial District, Manhattan acquired its famous skyline through a mixture of the necessity of making do with limited space and the egos of powerful men. The latter was more instrumental when John Pierpoint Morgan was required to rebuild his Wall Street bank. He instructed his architects to design foundations for a forty-story skyscraper, then quite deliberately built a squat, four-story building, half temple and half vault. JP Morgan emerged from 2008’s cataclysm under the idiosyncratic leadership of Jamie Dimon as one of Wall Street’s strongest banks and the four story building still stands.
Men and their Mark
The city’s one gaping wound is the World Trade Centre site at Manhattan’s southern tip. Commuters still exit the PATH train at WTC, tourists pass it on their way to the Statue of Liberty ferry and it is still very much a live political issue, as the furoure over the Mosque at Ground Zero showed not so long ago. 9/11 is a deep mark on the collective conciousness of not only New York, but America, yet much positivity exists in that legacy.
The Church of St Paul sits directly behind the site which will soon host the Freedom Tower. It was once famous for hosting the first service after the inaurguation of George Washington as President in 1792, and the first New York Governor, DeWitt Clinton. Now relatives, tourists and well-wishers slip inside to gaze at the scuffed pews where firefighters slept, the symbols of condolence from Nations, emergency services and communities around the world or the altars covered in photographs of the lost, and invariably feel the true horror of the 3,000 lives taken in the name of religion in a country that has no established church, but where religion thrives and adapts in all shapes. Perhaps it is that feeling, which Palin unwisely brushed over, that will prove to be the beginning of the end of her inflated political profile.
Such is the tumult of New York that human achievement is often recognised above and beyond, especially if honest in its intent. Robert Moses is relatively obscure, but ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani is highly regarded for his zero-tolerance atitude to nuisance crime and his response to September 11th. His successor, Michael Bloomberg (who draws a nominal salary of $1 a year on account of his wealth), is an interventionist who has banned trans-fats and smoking in public places, and is now taking on soda and promoting cycling.
The city’s most celebrated son, however, is the only President to be born in New York. A former governor of the State, Theodore Roosevelt became the Commander in Chief after the assassination of McKinley and won a full term thereafter. A believer that it was America’s burden to be the policeman of the world, Roosevelt is often considered right-wing for his preparedness to colonise countries to promote stability or trade (anyone who has seen the film Arsenic and Old Lace will have been made aware of his fondness for the Panama Canal). However, he was an ardent conservationist, and keen on the education of Americans in values that could be described as manly but not inconsiderate. Late in life he ran as a Progressive candidate for the Presidency, coming the closest third-place in American history. The American Museum of Natural History is a public monument to him, with an equestrian statue outside (patronisingly, a Native American walks beside him) and a grand rotunda displaying quotes of his on nature, politics, virtue and education.
The Boroughs and the People
Manhattan, with its vibrancy derived mostly from the relative youth of its inhabitants, is close to being the most manic place on earth. At night, Times Square is so bright its adverts practically emit daylight. Its Chinatown, which has almost strangled Little Italy, is far from the few streets of restaurants that London offers. Block after block of what were once the Bowery slums, shops selling unimaginable delicacies and restaurants are inhabited by almost no European faces. The Lower East Side contains hundreds of bars and takeaway restaurants where ageing hippies still bring their anti-war songs. The area around the Metropolitan Museum of Art (stunning, even compared to galleries in London or Paris) is populated by characters out of Woody Allen films, while across the park doormen stand outside what go for mansions (high-rise apartments in which it is still inconceivable that John Lennon would have lived).
Across one of the spectacular pieces of architecture that bridge the East River, Brooklyn invites all those in search of space. From Coney Island in the very south, through the well-heeled neighbourhood of Brooklyn Heights and up the ten mile Bedford Avenue, are clustered communities that seem to have little in common; African, Jewish, hipster.
Today was Purim, the celebration of the deliverance of the Jewish people. Walking through the Hasidic neighbourhood, I felt drawn to a similar conclusion made by AJ Jacobs in his Year of Living Biblically. While I feel sorry for anyone living in such a closed community 360 days of the year, and however much I believe that integration is liberation in the long run, it is hard not to envy a day of pure celebration such as this. Kids were dressed in costumes ranging from pirates to soldiers to old rabbis, while the odd man had replaced his traditional round fur hat with a colourful fedora. Buses passed up and down the street blaring out music and families were taking food to friends or relatives.
The theme, although I discounted one from the very beginning of this essay, is a devotion of New York to the practice of life. There is no centrally-driven plan or theory, just live and let live when the city is at its best. The sitcom Seinfeld is revered above Friends as practically a documentary of the bizarre and brilliant aspects of New York. That said, the one thing all New Yorkers will profess an opinion on is the food. Everyone claims to know where to get the best pizza, the perfect bagel filing, or the most particular ethnic minority cuisine for the occasion.