/last year in nu yorica/
IS THERE anything fresh to say about New York? Perhaps not, which is why it’s taken me nearly thirty years to return to the city – in between there has been Rudy Guiliani’s zero-tolerance policy to clean the streets of various panhandlers, muggers, graffiti artists, peddlers of sex and drugs, and other forms of “riff raff”; the wholesale pricing out of artists, musicians, and writers from their home turf of the East Village, Tribeca, and Alphabet City; the influx of the new money, of those that can afford the new rents in the revamped neighbourhoods; not forgetting the events of 9/11.
In the cab ride from JFK through East New York, down Atlantic Avenue, it would appear that little has changed in the intervening three decades. “Very bad area,” the cabbie states matter-of-factly. “Very bad,” he emphasises. The images are of the stark brutality of the projects, shotgun houses with the unemployed lounging on the stoops, and kids playing basketball on vacant lots that have no court markings, no hoop. The squad cars have pulled over a 4×4, its owner cuffed and vociferous while the cops painstakingly search his vehicle. All very New York 1984. The only visible change is kids playing that new-fangled game of soccer.
All is as it ever was, until the cab reaches Brooklyn.
Patisseries, artisanal bakeries, shops selling mid-Century furniture; crowds flooding into the huge Barclays Center shopping mall, home of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team; clothing boutiques populated by the hipsters who have colonised this part of the city – and all points south towards Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Dumbo, and Red Hook. Where, to their minds, with their whack facial hair and skinny jeans, they are at the cutting edge as they hunch over their iBooks and iPads, forging a new dream in the heat of a technological revolution that no one as yet completely understands. But these same scenesters can be found in Shoreditch, Kreuzberg, Amsterdam-Noord, or Paris’s 11th arrondissement. This is not a home-grown scene, but a global phenomenon. The only difference in Brooklyn is that they have the skyline of Manhattan as a huge backdrop – almost a mural that sums up their desire to be where the grown-ups are.
For the main, perhaps the only reason to visit New York is to let the cab continue across the Brooklyn Bridge to the glass and steel canyons of Manhattan itself. Not to a hotel, though, to my apartment – at least it is for the week. This is the modern way, whether Venice, Mexico City, or Hanoi, there will be a residence available on the websites of onefinestay, vrbo, or, in my case, airbnb. It’s a simple matter to determine the price you’re willing to pay, the neighbourhood you desire, and the type of accommodation you want. Thus, I circumvent the doily-mannered front-of-house hotel staff, the mini-bar bills, and the exorbitant hotel prices. Instead, I am slap bang in the East Village – just around the corner from the storefront studio that houses the internet-only phenomenon that is East Village Radio – and am free, to a certain extent, to actually get under the skin of New York. To treat the city as if I live there.
A cinnamon bun and double espresso at the Bluebird Café on East 1st Street kick-starts the day, and it’s not going to be a day ticking off the sights on a tourists itinerary, instead I will do as I would in London. Tickets have been booked to see Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’ on Broadway that evening – a brief run featuring Daniel Crag, his wife Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall – and the sharp sunshine of the autumn morning suggests a trip to the MoMa, specifically to see Gerhard Richter’s 15-painting cycle 18. Oktober 1977. A room of art that does the seemingly impossible, by making the suicides of imprisoned members of the Baader-Meinhoff Group touching, almost elegiac, with its mixed messages of compassion, and horror; of both innocence and democracy being in a state of paralysis.
This, of course, is ruined by the heavy hand that serves at the counter of the American cultural smorgasbord, for in this room a caterwauling exponent of expressive dance is contorting herself while spouting all manner of what can only be described as gobbledegook. Nurse! I want to cry. Her meds have worn off. Strap her to the gurney. Get her back to Bellevue. But what can I do? Just shrug, and wait for the show (such as it is) to stop. It is, after all, the American Way. Just as that evening, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the well-heeled theatregoers (tickets are now changing hands for four-figure sums) applaud the mere entrance of Daniel Craig, leaving him open-mouthed, halfway through delivering his first lines like an end-of-the-pier Widow Twankey. A pause that Pinter hadn’t banked on.
So much is, still, lost in translation. On Broadway, a man wearing a silver-spangled Stetson, cowboy boots, and a pair of briefs explains to his friend: “And after 15 years he lost his house, his family, his kids, his job …” Your clothes, man! I want to shout. And your dignity.
I return to the relative sanctuary of the East Village – “Hey! Every night is Haloween in the Village!” a bum calls out – and a restaurant recommendation from Sophia Coppola, for what she considers the best neighbourhood restaurant in New York. This is often the way in our inter-connected 21st Century, that a throwaway answer to a question from a British magazine will find an English writer dining on the other side of the world at East 1st Street’s Prune, squeezed in among the muddle-aged Manhattanites who can afford the prices in what used to be a literal wasteland, burnt out and unloved. Tucking into a delicious pork belly with pickled tomatoes, I spy the window of the tiny boutique next door where there is a single black and white dress, and a copy of a magazine, called ‘Smug’.
Where there used to be heroin shooting galleries, and beat-up Jeeps blasting out Eric B and Rakimon a continuous loop, there are funky opticians, the Bond No. 9 fragrance boutique, and specialist photographic bookstores such as Dashwood Books – where copies of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s ‘Hustlers’ are flying off the shelves at $125 a pop. Hard by is a reminder of the bad old days, the Hells Angels clubhouse as well as a homeless shelter, with their different sets of clientele – in between nestle The Sanctuary Guest Suites.
The following morning’s New York Post splashes with ‘GET BANKSY!’. The front-page story spells out the problem: ‘Quick, call the cops! We’re having an art attack! The elusive British street artist/vandal known as Banksy has driven the NYPD bonkers during his “residency” in New York – and police are going all out to find him.’ One would have thought that the spiritual home of graffiti would be aware of the value of a Banksy mural by now, rather than be incensed enough to ‘GET THIS CLOWN!’ The days of Futura 2000, Keith Haring, and Richard Hambleton obviously little more than a distant memory now.
Art of a different kind takes me to the Frick Gallery on the Upper East Side, more accurately, once again, specific works in ‘The Masterpieces of Dutch Painting’ exhibition. Vermeer’s sublime ‘Girl with a Pearl Earing’, and the illusory beauty of Carel Fabritius’s astounding ‘The Goldfinch’, which has gained recent fame as the eponymous title of the new Donna Tartt novel. This is the point of New York, to look and see, for it is still a feast of visuals. From signage and buildings, through exhibitions and people-watching, to taking a snack in a Tribeca sandwich shop where Robert de Niro is the only other customer, peering over the top of a copy of that day’s New York Times. And was that Samuel L Jackson driving a cab on St Marks Place? And what movie are you shooting here? Oh, a sequel to ‘Annie’ – sorry I asked.
Continuing the Donna Tartt theme, I take lunch at the Union Square Café, the unofficial canteen of the New York publishing industry, and allegedly her favourite joint in town – although what does she know? She’s an out-of-towner as much as I am, writing from her farm in Virginia. A loud conversation at a neighbouring table, designed to be overheard, concerns sales figures, lawyers, and John Grisham. Perhaps its time to take a break from this urbanity, maybe in one of the old-school bars that still exist in Manhattan. Perhaps the Ear Inn on Spring Street, a stone’s throw from Donald Judd’s former studio, which is now a museum dedicated to the master of minimalism (visits are booked solid until February next year, if you want to book ahead); or perhaps Milano’s on East Houston, serving up drinks since the prohibition, alleged former headquarters of Norman Mailer’s campaign for New York Mayor in 1969, and close enough to the party on Hudson I’ve been invited to that night so as to avoid yet another linguistic misunderstanding with a New York cabbie.
Photographers, lawyers, UN employees, and museum fund-raisers are scattered around the huge loft space. A taste of Manhattan as it’s lived now. There’s no sense of the old days of the Bowery, Mudd Club, and CBGBs, though – that has all been long re-developed. Philosophers discuss the meaning of time with male models; old-school Brooklynites the meaning of ancient hip-hop rhymes with bartenders from Atlanta.
The drinks flow, the UN contingent are discussing how they rent out their lofts on Airbnb, and sublet other apartments in Brooklyn to unwary hipsters. It’s time to go home.
My hangover the following morning suggests that there’s only one cure – a trip on the subway to Coney Island, and the Slavic delights of Brighton Beach. It is just out of season, and the funfair is shut down for the year, producing a beautifully mournful vista along the boardwalk, which is photographed and filmed by students from the New York film schools. They capture the brash vulgarity of the closed down rides, the hoardings and 1950s neon advertisements, and the near-deserted beach. As the fine white sand scuds along the boardwalk, the conversations become almost exclusively Russian as I approach Brighton Beach, known as Little Odessa for obvious reasons, to enjoy a bowl of spinach borscht.
Back in Manhattan for dinner at Raoul’s, a boisterous bistro in SoHo for the finest steak au poivre in Manhattan, and the Cyrillic and garish glassware stores, the babushkas and brusque waitresses of Brighton Beach, become a distant memory. Enjoying an aperitif, it seems that Rafe Spall is now stalking me, sat at the adjacent table with David Schwimmer. The oft-heard mantra, ‘Only in New York’, springs to mind. The evening is rounded off in a blur of rum cocktails over the pool table at the faux colonial-Jamaican hangout that is Kingston Hall on 2nd Avenue.
Finally, I give in to one unabashedly touristic experience, a lunch at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, amid the crazed hubbub of dodgy businessmen making crazed deals, and attempt to work out what has really changed over thirty years. New York, or more accurately Manhattan, is still as self-obsessed and insular as it ever was. Perhaps the fabled melting-pot doesn’t have as many ingredients as it once did; the money that has swamped the island has, for good or bad, sandpapered away many of its rougher and more interesting edges. Still, though, still there is a magic to Manhattan, albeit one that you have to create for yourself out of the many disparate parts of the jigsaw. Simply treat it as your own playground – it appears that everyone who lives there does.