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NYC: A Tale of Two Cities


I recently had this dream where I was stumbling around midtown Manhattan in a rage. I was wearing a T-shirt that emblazoned “I have not been adequately caffeinated”. The people that I encountered were kind and understanding as if Central Park had been swapped with Golden Gate Park. These were not tourists, but born and bred New Yorkers. Their voices were hard but their attitude anything but.

I first went to New York in the summer of 1986 chasing a dream, like so many before and since. Recently departed from my legal career, I was then a musician and New York was the mecca. The plan was to attend the New Music Seminar with a carton of self-funded vinyl and ignite the flame.

The budget was whatever was remaining on my credit card after airfares and registration fees.

As ever New York hotels were priced at a premium and in these pre-internet days bargains difficult to uncover.

Nevertheless one lower Manhattan hotel emerged as a bargain too good to be true. And it was.

The morbidly obese cab driver took me there and in an uncharacteristically New York fashion suggested that he hang around almost as a lookout /getaway car. He told to me look inside the hotel. “I don’t think you want to be in this neighbourhood for very much longer” he said while nervously surveying all around.

He was right. It was nothing more than a flophouse for winos. And so he spirited us away uptown through the corrugated vibrations of the cobbled streets and up the West Side Highway to the late 50s and Broadway to a hotel that met his approval. Or perhaps he worked a side commission.

This was not a flophouse. Instead the room had an attractive outlook onto a concrete void. The air inside seemed never to be refreshed and was this constant, thick, congested gas that coated the throat as it went into your lungs. I’m sure that there was oxygen in that air. Somewhere. The TV antenna was nothing more than a coat hanger. And even that kept falling off. This was my first home in New York.

I became a frequent visitor to New York over the next 15 years, sleeping on friend’s couches, staying in short term apartments and even hotels, ranging from functional to classic. But no matter which hotel I was in they all shared a certain grimy quality to one extent or the other, mirroring their surrounds.

But then it all stopped in 2000. I changed direction in my life and I didn’t have the need to visit New York. However after a break of over 10 years, my curiosity took over and I had to revisit a city that was so much part of my life for so many years.

Somehow it had all cleaned up. The hotel this time was a much grander affair. St Giles – The Court in Murray Hill, recently taken over by the Malaysian based St Giles Group from the W. A former 1920s apartment block with rooms almost palatial in comparison to my first hotel experience in the city. No doubt a reflection of the intense optimism of pre-Depression times.No evidence of any grime. Far from it. A nightclub in the foyer that seemed to extend into the elevators. But then quiet elegance in the rooms. Restful. Is this really New York?

This was a more subdued New York than the one I had grown accustomed to and almost loved and embraced.. It’s become much…quieter, sedate but not yet suburban thank God!

It is amazing to see former no-go areas transform themselves into the new darlings, the places where you really need to be seen. The hotel that I escaped from years ago has been revamped within an inch of its life and is apparently a destination of sorts.

The same for my first hotel. I looked at it from a distance not quite understanding its transformation. The reception area looks like the sleek check-in area of a glamorous airport of days gone past – imagine Betty Draper as a check-in clerk all glammed up. I wonder what they did with that trapped air. I almost imagine it to be some sort of archaeological remnant that they proudly display in a glass jar.So what has changed for me?

It got so much… cleaner, quieter almost normal. Everybody was polite kind almost as if a weight had been lifted off their shoulders. Maybe it’s a bit of getting older and put more things into perspective. I know about that. We came across a reporter from the New York Post who was interviewing for some article about nothing. I was doing some field recording at the time. She noticed this and asked “Are you recording me?”

Now with the recent phone hacking allegations surrounding the Murdoch Empire, this in retrospect is a very interesting question to be asked by a New York Post reporter. But then I noticed that she was inputting our responses into her iPhone thumbs spinning across the phone at the speed of light. I couldn’t help thinking she was making up some texting abbreviations. Perhaps this will be the new iPhone app for the New York Post: a series of tweets, postings and the like.


The next day our curiosity does get the better of us and we buy the New York Post eagerly to see if our photos were in the paper. They weren’t. Maybe it was a scam. You remember scams? They used to be everywhere in New York.

It was hard finding coffee there without resorting to the chains. Which is a difficult exercise for a race of people have become accustomed to ever present single-origin coffee that bursts your eyeballs awake at the first sip. Pathetic I know. But no matter how strong you encourage the chains to make it, the caffeine fix is elusive. Now of course when you come home everybody will say “Yeah there was this great coffee shop down on Blah Street that was just like the coffee we are used to and it was amazing”. And you know what I never found it. It’s almost as if you need specific directions just to get decent coffee. But I also suspect that if you go there and you try that coffee it just wouldn’t be that brain explosion that you find so necessary to start your day. How did we survive before this came along?

So I’m going around New York in a slightly agitated state. It used to be the other way around. You almost feel like you need to apologise for yourself with a T-shirt that reads “Pardon me. I am not adequately caffeinated today”.

I was struck at how quiet the city was. Times Square is now a piazza. It seemed a strange thing even with the midtown traffic you normally get. But above the traffic noise, there’s no yelling, screaming. No crazies, no homeless people, no….. Anything above what you would see in another city. Normal city that is. In fact you see more of these things in other cities these days. But it is like many places you are always in a state of flux state of development moving on constantly. It’s never static.

I had the feeling that this was the free iPhone app of New York. New York Lite.

Was there a velvet rope that I needed to cross to get the Pro version?

It was as if a wind of change had literally come through the city. All the old icons are still there but it was like they had survived a period of the Post-Ford Pre-Obama period. The bookends of an economic recession. But unlike the 70s recession this time New York was not alone. The rest of America had followed.

There is a tourist multimedia storefront in Times Square now. Is this the real thing? Yeah come to New York. Bring the whole family. Not quite Leave It To Beaver but a mile away from Our Gang.



NYC Items on The Travel Bug Digest

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