Arriving in New York in late March and approaching Manhattan through Queens, I was struck by the contrast between the reality flying past our cab window, and the glamorous image of the city so often seen on TV and the big screen.
Coming from London which I think is looking cleaner than ever, it was a shock to say the least to see the drab apartment blocks and shabby streets continuously passing the car window. But no sooner had we emerged from the Queens Mid Town tunnel and into Manhattan than the energy of the city started to work its magic.
I first visited Manhattan as a teenager and of course going to the viewing deck of the Empire State building was a must. It was then that I was hit by the unique pulse of this extraordinary metropolis; the buzz of the city that just embraced everything for as far as I could see.
Each time I return the soundtrack of NYC is just as impactful. I can only describe it as something between a buzz and a roar – it’s a formidable combination of traffic, thousands of building air con systems, millions of cars and even more people. Only the idiosyncratic horns of the emergency services punctuate this steady noise, with their ever increasingly bizarre sirens designed to startle the iPod wearing New Yorkers, including electronic yelps and hails that sound more like cartoon characters than fire engines or ambulances. However, despite all this, the city certainly seemed quieter to me. Maybe because it was so cold, with the smell of snow in the air, or maybe its because the financial crash has knocked New Yorkers’ confidence; whatever it is, the streets are calmer than I remember, with no loud conversations, extravagant gestures or larger than life characters.
Rafa is a determined explorer. I’m more focused on places to eat and drink; yet I loved being a tourist for a day, doing things I had never done before, like taking the Staten Island Ferry; a fun, free and easy way to get the best view of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and more. One thing he didn’t get to twist my arm on was to go skating on the ice rink at the Rockefeller Centre!
I love discovering the evolving Manhattan neighbourhoods – their names have become part of popular culture thanks to years of Hollywood movies and HBO dramas. From the ‘Sopranos’ to ‘Sex and the City’, from ‘Friends’ to ‘Seinfeld’, we all feel we know New York City. But this time I got to see a little more of districts I am less familiar with. Firstly, Starwood kindly provided us with an exceptional well equipped studio in their new Element Hotel in the once unfashionable Fashion and Garment District, an industrial area full of dark brick units still housing garment factories and fabric stores. (Sitting here in my hotel room, tapping away at my laptop, in the shadow of the New York Times tower I feel like Carrie Bradshaw!)
Staying in a studio suite on the 38th floor has its advantages; it affords the kind of view that is only possible in Manhattan, with the iconic Chrysler Building and robust New York Times tower defining our slice of this urban jungle. The outlook surely confirms that this must be the most developed island on the planet. Urban life here is time consuming – although as visitors we may not have to deal with bridges and tunnels on a daily commute, but believe me, waiting for elevators is demanding enough! Riding these vertical thoroughfares, it’s funny to observe the various styles on elevator etiquette. There is the ‘Good Morning smilers’; the introverted ‘bowed headed’ folk; the talkers that want to chat about nothing and everything for 20 floors; then there are the ‘scanners’, the people that quickly scan the lift, assess the passengers, enter the cabin yet then immediately turn around to face the closing doors, ignoring everyone. But worse of all, of course are the ‘silent farters’.
The hotel’s surrounding neighbourhood has an edge that has almost gone in most post industrial areas in Manhattan, most are now well and truly gentrified.. For example the now fancy TriBeCa (TRIangle BElow CAnal street) neighbourhood was amongst the first to pioneer the notion of loft conversions that went on to sweep across so many post industrial cities across the world.
I searched out the ‘High Line’, that runs through Chelsea – a former elevated railway that is now an urban park, maintained by volunteers. Winter is not really the time to enjoy it at its best, but it is still a cool and imaginative example of urban renewal. What’s more, it’s close to Chelsea Market which has to be one of the city’s best and most quirky retail centres – plus it makes a great stop for lunch.
I prefer Chelsea and the Meat Packing District to Greenwich Village that has now become more of a pastiche of its former self. With the arrival of Richard Meier’s three stunning signature apartment towers with apartments selling in the millions of dollars the village is now officially mainstream.
Together with the Meat Packing District, Chelsea is the cool hub of the city; Samantha in ‘Sex in the City’ called it ‘Trendy by day and Trannie by Night’ but in reality for the gay community, their work here is done and they are now looking for new and more cutting edge areas to transform.
Glamour seemed in short supply on the winter streets of New York this week, but I wasn’t giving up. Inevitably, a stroll up Fifth Avenue and along Madison, catching glimpses of Flag Ship Stores of the world’s greatest brands helps makes the city feel more stylish, and a visit to the Met and the Gugenheim confirms you are in one of the world’s greatest cities. Lunch was in ‘The Wright’, its name a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright who designed the iconic circular museum. The restaurant is in the old museum café, and features stunning, yet simple styling with a beautifully curved bar, and centre sharing table, and along the wall a sweeping banquette with blue leather seats. The food was tasty and well priced, but yet again I made the mistake and ordered wine – here in the US wine is more expensive than the main plate!
The Upper East Side has a charm that is lacking in much of Manhattan – vintage buildings with to-die for Central Park views dominate the skyline and super posh hotels like the Mandarin Oriental offer elegant lounge bars where you can drink in the view in style.
One thing I can’t get excited about is the NY subway – us Brits are always criticising our country, but at the end of the day London’s tube is slowly getting better and is really clean, especially when one considers how many people use it. The NYCT subway system in contrast is a mess – it looks like a Hollywood set for some kind of apocalyptic move.
Talking of apocalyptic scenes, we visited the site of the former World Trade Centre, or Ground Zero as some still refer to it. A hub of down town activity, construction is well advanced with the Memorial Plaza, due to open on the 10th Anniversary of the terrorist attack, and one can also see the progress being made on the two new skyscrapers that will form part of the new World Trade Centre complex.
Just up from the site is a visitor centre offering a preview to the National 9/11 Memorial, including the Memorial Park which will surround two square waterfalls set within the footprints of the destroyed North and South towers, which will cascade into reflecting pools which will finally disappear into centre voids. The names of all those killed in the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan, Flight 93 and at the Pentagon will be etched in bronze around the edges of the pools. For a city that is always looking forward there is also a time to look back.