Hello New York, often called “the city that never sleeps” because of the energy that comes from the more than eight million people who call themselves New Yorkers, a staggering 50 per cent of them born outside the US. It is a place where, just when you think you have seen it all with the guitar-playing naked cowboy, you bump into his partner, the naked – you guessed it – cowgirl.
A fire-eater stands under Manhattan Bridge, on the Brooklyn side of New York. Everything is ready: Jack brought the whistles and balloons. He’s dressed like a mafioso from the 1930s. The girls are wearing burlesque hats, acrylic nails, and are parading beside the East River in high heels. A circus? No it isn’t. It’s a wedding; where priests and hymns have been replaced by Dylan-esque musings on the harmonica and a flame-spewing officiant. Welcome to post-9/11 New York; a city that is looking ahead using its two secret weapons: gumption and creativity.
“New Yorkers aren’t stupid,” says Guido Nistri. “They know this is the time to stop and reflect for a moment, and perhaps to save a little. But this city has been through a number of crisis from which it is only now emerging.” Guido runs the Rosi Delicatessen at 283 Amsterdam Avenue, with an Italian shop counter, premises created by set designer Dante Ferretti, some affluent customers (Jude Law), “and a range of small snacks for lower-spending, but more regular local customers, and an online selection to keep up with the times.”
New York is disorientating. It never sleeps. It’s a city that buckles under the flood of 44 million tourists each year, and whose numbers are expected to rise to 60million by 2030. So, why all the hype? New York is a veritable imperial capital, dominating the fascinating realms of art, architecture, advertising and publishing. And, in a city without industry, everything is devised, produced, launched and exported on a global scale. New York – even more so than London and Tokyo – is still, according to many, a living and breathing allegory to the modern world.
This city always knows how to reinvent itself
The display windows at Café Lalo are full of cakes, but Alberto Flores D’Arcais asks for a ‘solito’, a simple Italian coffee. Alberto, a correspondent for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, lives on the Upper West Side and often stops by for his regular espresso . “They filmed some scenes for You’ve Got Mail here,” he says, while showing me the cover of his book, simply titled New York.
“This city always knows how to reinvent itself. It knows how to tighten its belt when it has to. Seventy years ago, on the occasion of the World’s Fair, mythical mayor Fiorello La Guardia put pen to paper and wrote down the ten biggest misconceptions about the Big Apple. The city was not greedy, he wrote, but had a cultured and refined spirit. It was not badly educated, but edified and kind. It was not an architectural pastiche, but a patchwork of beauty. It was not cold, but a warm and generous community, always ready to offer help in case of a great catastrophe. That was 1939, but La Guardia’s words still resonate even a decade after 9/11.”
For the most part, Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been a place of continuous change. At the end of the 1800s, the area’s cramped living conditions encouraged the rapid spread of tuberculosis that infected almost 40 percent of the area’s working class population. By the turn of the 20th century – as Ellis Island swelled with “huddled masses yearning to be free” – the neighborhood morphed into the home of almost half a million Jewish immigrants. Artists and squatters soon followed, like Linda Yablonsky, who references those colorful years in “The Story of Junk”. Today, the area is undoubtedly a fashionable neighborhood – cleaned up and expensive – much like SoHo nearby and the Chelsea galleries further beyond.
Where people go for a taste of old New York?
The same evolution has taken place in Greenwich Village – the old ‘Latin quarter’ – and the East Village, which has maintained its unkempt atmosphere, while sending rent prices skyward, forcing many historical premises to close their shutters. So where then, do people go for a taste of old New York?
Domenic Alfonzetti came to America from Scilla in southern Italy when he was just four years old. Today he is chef concierge at the InterContinental the Barclay. “There is no better time to come to New York, and for Europeans the dollar is still cheap,” he explains in the spacious lobby of the hotel, one of most famous (and discreet) in the Big Apple.
“One piece of advice though: you are not restricted to Manhattan. Visit Queens for example, which is like Brooklyn 20 years ago: a neighborhood full of African, Puerto Rican and Muslim immigrants who live side by side with Russians, Indians and Jews. And above all visit Brooklyn, the truly innovative borough: a lively and creative place full of new restaurants, shops, artists and musicians, and with rents that are only now starting to rise. It’s to this new ‘village’ that the New Yorkers of Manhattan come to spend their evenings.”
Brooklyn may have been discovered over a decade ago, but it’s still a hot bed of creativity and exploration. Here, ambitious young chefs (disciples of Michael Pollan and his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto), will feed you a kind of Factory Gastronomy that is being lauded in the local papers. Ten years ago these chefs would have snubbed Brooklyn, but then, attracted by more reasonable prices, they began opening cafés and restaurants, and today have become a major success.
Sacred spots that attract thousands of residents
After setting the benchmark for urban green spaces with the completion of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux set out to tackle Prospect Park in the mid-1800s. Today, both places are sacred spots that attract thousands of residents and have spawned an emerald necklace of smaller spots around the city.
“Every New Yorker must have a park no more than ten minutes’ walk from home,” Mayor Bloomberg declared when unveiling ‘NYC2030’, the ambitious plan to make the city ‘greener and greater’ by 2030. ‘Greater’ in order to accommodate the additional million inhabitants expected to be living in New York by 2030 (today there are more than eight million), and ‘greener’ in order to improve the quality of life, by encouraging the use of bicycles, low-impact buses and hybrid taxis, and discouraging private vehicle congestion by introducing a compulsory fee of $8 a day for anyone wanting to enter Manhattan by car.
Public restoration works are endemic to every neighborhood of the city. Battery Park in Lower Manhattan has been given a facelift, as has the East River, Times Square (with two new skyscrapers designed by Renzo Piano and Norman Foster), and even neighborhoods like Harlem, the historical heart of African American culture.
“It’s a district few know, and usually only discover through its musical heritage,” says Valeria Luiselli, a young Mexican doctoral candidate studying Hispanic Literature at Columbia University. She had her first story published in the Sunday edition of the New York Times (“The story of a night porter, an emblematic figure who’s a bridge between public and private, and a great distributor of advice and wisdom while smoking cigarettes at night.”)
A city full of experiences
“Many of the best things in New York are free,” Valeria adds. As Tom Wolfe says, this is a city full of experiences: the very fact of being here is an experience in itself. Taking a walk in Central Park, browsing the market stalls of Union Square, standing gazing at the bridges, or riding the ferry that sails every half hour toward Staten Island.
The ferry in particular offers a unique look at this ethnically eclectic city, where foreign minorities have become the majority. Fifty percent of adult New Yorkers were born outside in the United States. But this trend of diversity is not new, of course. New York has been a cosmopolitan nexus since the very beginning. In 1624, the Dutch set up their trading post on the island of Manhattan and worked regularly with the local Native American Lenape people. New York then became a British colony, an American state, and ultimately, one of the United States’ most vital points of entry for wave upon wave of international immigrants.
“And there’s something else,” Valeria smiles. “The Dutch mentality has remained. And that’s the real beauty of this city: you are only judged by one thing, the quality of your work. Here it’s what you do, not who you are…”