A lot of New York is as advertised. Steam really comes out of grilles in the street, and you can hear the subway rattling underneath. Buildings really have metal fire escapes with last segment of ladder suspended 2-3 metres above street level. The main post office really has the words "Neither snow nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" engraved on its facade. Con Edison vans, as in "Let's blow this place to kingdom come, let Con Edison take the blame!" really go round fixing the electricity supply. Other aspects of the city appear to have changed. The hotels around Washington square look anything but crummy. The Hotel Chelsea is still in business, but at $150-$250 a night you couldn't afford to stay up in in for days writing songs unless you were, well, someone very famous. I walked the length of 7th avenue without getting a "come on" from any whores or in fact seeing any at all (although there was a woman touting a strip club who may also have been a really inept pickpocket). But NYPD is indeed blue (in fact they have two kinds of blue colour scheme), sandwiches are indeed big, it is really necessary to crank your neck upwards to see the top of skyscrapers from the sidewalk, and as zbyszek says, Grand Central station is both of these things. Under Grand Central there's a reasonable bookshop. Seeing some cosmic irony in it, I bought a copy of the Communist Manifesto. It cost $4.99.
New York is a cite a l' Americain. It is definitely a city, with a grid patterns of streets so archetypal they've had to introduce punctuating features like Broadway or Madison Square to make it fit in a human mind. But this New Amsterdam it's also unlike a normal city almost as much as old Amsterdam is. Great, gothic, early 20th century skyscrapers serve as much to mark the uniqueness of the blocks that they solely occupy as the optimism of their creators. Unlike a European or Japanese city with their many small centres, you feel that wherever you are in Manhattan you are on the same, slightly too large scale, urban grid. The fabric of the city is sometimes lively coloured and sometimes dull or torn, but you think that at least the threads go straight from one river to the other. Although the city is huge, it is strangely not dense, either in people or in traffic. People density feels much higher in London or Tokyo, and people flow also seems much higher in these cities. In the case of New York, I wonder how many people the great buildings actually contain, and how they manage to get in and out of the city each day.
Saturday I went North, walking in the impossibly large Central Park, did my best not to fall on the little ice rink (figuring that I might spend part of a lazy afternoon that way if I lived there) and visited the Guggenheim, a white, six-storey-high, cuddly Frank Lloyd Wright sculpture that they also sometimes decorate with interesting paintings. I then stubbornly headed north along Madison Avenue, and kept going north.
Around 97th street, a few blocks up from the museums on the East side, the elegant middle-class city turns into a bleak housing estate. The men push shopping trolleys around with their belongings, or stand outside armored liquor stores. The women seemed to be minding some kind of pre-halloween children's celebration in the small and dirty green spaces in the squares. The NYPD was patrolling everywhere, as they are all over New York, but in this case they were moving fast and had flashing lights on. Families lived in Glasgow-style identical tower blocks with fortified entrances, but with great pride, and, of course, everyone was black or hispanic.
There is a magazine in the US called Ebony. It's not porn! It's something like the Bill Cosby show, only not funny. It shows pictures and stories of middle-class black people doing middle-class things. Articles advice "sisters" (women) on how to avoid obesity or STDs, and "brothers" (men) that no matter what they think they must understand "no means no". The copy I saw on the plane had at least three impressive-looking ads about joining the armed forces. Well, if you find yourself in New York, take a walk in Harlem or Spanish Harlem and this sort of offensive crap will at least make sense.
Spanish Harlem seems to be the prouder and poorer of the two. It certainly has the highest density of establishments selling hope, be they Baptists, Methodists, the lottery, or nail and beauty shops. In some cases, the hopemongers have ran out of stock and their churches are boarded up. Amateur posters advertise community events and official ones admonish men that "It's not enough to be the father and say you're the father" but you have to formally register fatherhood. Cuban flags are displayed everywhere, usually on either side of an American flag, the lot looking like a picture of the sort of happy family where everyone knows the father is abusing the women pictured on either side but that's just they way it is. As least the Cuban flags look alive at the top of their poles.
Harlem is a less poor neighborhood, not least because the state government building is here, and actually manages to have a couple of middle-class streets with big franchises and internet cafes. The Body Shop is there, calling itself "a community store". Hope is still being sold, but in a less basic way, for example with people wishing to be great at something, like music or basketball (as an aside, how many people who become great actually wanted that, as opposed to not be miserable). In Harlem too, as for the whole area north of about 100th street, everyone is black. Yes, I know that the guide book says it's a "predominantly black neighborhood" but really everyone is black. In the course of walking for about five hours I saw exactly 4 white people (two on the streets, one in Starbucks, one in a "soul food" restaurant). Five whites out of maybe 50k-100k people visible on the streets. Whatever the race fence consists of, it is quite strong. On the way back south to the more affluent neighborhoods I passed a rather elegant designer restaurant on the outskirts of Harlem. Yes, everyone in it was black.
The largest section of the city from something like 25th to about 90th Streets is horribly middle class. Hetero couples go round dressed smart casual, visit theatres, and eat and drink in large, spacious, and posh "bar & grill"s. The men appear on edge, presumably worrying if they are adequately wealthy and properly in control with the women, while the women seem to constantly evaluate their own attractiveness and whether they could get better men with it. At least the New York middle class, unlike, say British middle class, can dress properly. You get the impression that the middle class has only recently captured the area and are not entirely at home with it. The omnipresent NYPD is the very prominent occupying force, parading their horses in Times Square and patrolling in cars everywhere else. In a busy corner of 8th avenue, next to some rather dingy sex businesses, I could hear a foot officer talking loudly to another in a van: "There's a guy a couple of blocks down who claims to have been beaten by officers, did any of your guys do that?"
It gets better towards the south, between about 25th Street down to the banking district. Chelsea is friendly and rather gay, which you can tell because it has a Gay Street (also notable in being the only "side street" in Manhattan). Nearby Greenwich Village has New York University, but that actually seems a bit dead and mainstream for a university district. There are a few music bars. South of it (SoHo) is lively but in a rather posh way. You can (well, in theory, probably you can't) buy some rather luxurious things like bathtubs elegantly carved out of stone, or dinner tables with blue-white LEDs embedded in them between conductive layers of glass. Gratuitous quantities of truly very fine food seem to be everywhere on offer, and if you're middle class too then only the images created by the great Miyazaki save you from turning into a pig.
The East Village and Lower East Side are in fact the most normal and at-ease areas in my European eyes. The scale of the buildings is more human and the streets more varied. People walk their dogs and smile at you, and feel it's OK to go out not wearing designer clothes even though they can probably afford them. Bars resemble London or Edinburgh bars and I've even been able to convince a doorman that I was 33 without having my ID (but it was hard - take your ID even if you look 60). Lower East Side is insanely stylish in architecture, establishments, and people. It has one of the world's great sex shops (Toys in Babeland) but I didn't find the radical bookshop to match. There are lots of music bars with several promising acts, even on a boring day. Buildings alternate from glass and metal art houses, to crumbling warehouses with arabesque windows, to dark graffitied subterranean bars too style-conscious to have a sign with their name.
If you're going, take a pile of money with you. New York is one of the great sinks of global Capitalism. Money and goods made elsewhere, and labour from the suburbs, are pumped into the city in great quantities, where they annihilate each other in a whirlpool of consumption. You have to treat money as a green fluid that represents goodness. When you want anything, you're supposed to give a big dollop of the green goodness to the seller and you'll get something good back. The result is that anything more than a coffee costs at least $20, once you've added a soda and the tip. New York on a budget may be possible, but people will at least look at you oddly. It may be the home of the American Dream, but it seems the dream depends a lot on your generosity.
I might take to living there, but I'd need about twice my already high income, and I'd constantly worry about what the money, the policing, and the constant false politeness paid for by the tip do to the soul. The feral instinct to rise and be great, and to show that you're great, is very much what you see, rather than an attitude of enjoying life and letting others enjoy theirs. I also think that the residents, boring middle class and trendy middle class alike, are sometimes a bit too absorbed in being cool New Yorkers for their own good. At least in the Lower East Side you get the impression that being stylish and living in the Capital of the World is all they do.
Whenever I visit San Francisco, I miss it. I feel a certain chagrin that I wasn't born there, or at least I didn't go to one of its universities and spend my youth there. I still envy being a part of it, its visionaries, its politics, and its perverts. With New York, I think a few more visits over the course of my lifetime will be enough.