Ten Days in New York

I’m back from New York, having had a fantastic time wandering around, drinking, and hanging out with friends.  What follows are my general observations and thoughts, in no particular order of importance.

New York is massive, I mean seriously big.  I first got an inkling of this when I found the time it took to get from Harlem to 42nd Street on the subway was longer than I thought, and I’d only covered about half of Manhattan.  Later in the week I tried to walk from lower Manhattan to midtown, but gave up as I realised no matter how many blocks I covered I still wasn’t getting much closer.  Later still I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and looked towards midtown, and realised it was an awfully long way off.  And when I crossed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge into Astoria and looked westwards at Manhattan, it seemed to stretch southwards forever.  Even disregarding Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, Manhattan itself is enormous, on a different scale to anywhere else I’ve lived (Lagos, despite having a population of about 18 million people, isn’t that big geographically).  I quickly realised that simply walking everywhere isn’t really an option in New York.

It took me a while to get used to the subway.  About two days in I figured out that different trains run on the same lines but stop at different stations, and that some trains were “local” – stopping at every station – and some “express” and only stopping at major stations.  And whether a train was local or an express changed with the time of day and the day of the week.  This was all a bit complicated for a farm boy from Wales, but at least it explained why New York subway stations are designed with a third track in the middle: it allows trains to pass through without stopping.

The metro itself worked well enough, and was mercifully air conditioned.  But the stations themselves weren’t, and it was stiflingly hot down there.  The locals seemed to cope with this a lot better than I did, as I was sweating buckets.  I can’t say I liked the subway carriages themselves, the stainless steel design making them look more industrial than perhaps they need to, but they were clean enough.  The same can’t be said for the stations, which were in desperate need of a pressure wash, and the whole system kept reminding me of violent scenes in films from the 1980s.  At least they don’t have Guardian Angels patrolling it any more.  I will say this, though: the people seem a lot friendlier on the New York subway than they are on the London underground or Paris metro.  One chap offered to help me figure out the myriad combinations of stops and express trains – something you’d never see a Parisian doing – and I noticed people spoke and interacted with each other more than anywhere else I’ve seen.  Aside from one bellend who came in dressed like a gangster, shirtless with his pants hanging down his arse and tattoos all over him carrying a ghetto blaster playing music that only reinforced my theory that the louder music is played the worse it is, everyone was awfully polite.

On the subject of gangstas and anti-social behaviour, Harlem hadn’t changed that much.  Gentrification is a word that gets bandied around a lot, and is taken to mean a rough place has now become much nicer, but my observations of supposedly gentrified areas of New York and London leave me skeptical.  One morning as I was standing outside my friend’s refurbished brownstone house I saw a black chap riding his bike along the pavement towards me.  I hopped up onto the steps of the house to get out of his way, and glanced over my shoulder when I noticed his mate riding along the middle of the road.  The guy in the road saw me looking and shouted:

“Hey, European n*gger!  Watchyoo lookin’ at?  You act like that in this neighbourhood and you’ll get beaten up!”

So there’s still some reform to go, I believe.  The area itself was chock-full of people sitting about or dawdling aimlessly in between run-down “delis” (as Americans call corner shops), nail salons, liquour stores, and laundromats which looked as depressing as hell.  A good portion of the locals walked with a limp, or showed some other sign of ill-health, and way too many were hopelessly overweight.  There was a McDonald’s nearby, probably the filthiest and most run-down I’ve ever seen.  Ghetto blasters pumped out gangster rap while their owners lolled about pretending to run a stall selling junk which nobody wanted.  I felt safe enough – nowhere has frightened me more than Manchester north of Great Ancoats street in the late ’90s – but I stood out like a sore thumb.  My friend quipped that the only other person he sees wearing a suit in his neighbourhood is the director of the local funeral parlour.  Giant housing projects, which to be fair didn’t look as bad as they are portrayed on TV, were placed every few blocks.  Only the presence of a handful of nice bars and restaurants and a wholefoods supermarket which is “coming soon” serves to show the area contains properties which run into the millions of dollars.  And so I think that the term “gentrification” is something deployed by real estate agents to justify exorbitant sale and rental prices, something akin to a place being “charming” or “having character”.  Property prices have soared in every corner of New York, as people flood in for work opportunities and higher salaries, and the theory is these higher-earners are moving into the run-down areas and pricing out the locals.  Only I didn’t see much displacement of locals going on, probably because it didn’t look as though they had jobs or paid market rates for their properties: Harlem looked like a place which had seen a handful of wealthy people move in and everyone else staying right where they are.  I think it’ll take a while for wholesale change to occur, if indeed it ever does.

I tested this observation a stage further by heading out to the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, an area which I had heard was also becoming “gentrified” and in which hipsters and wannabe “artists” were paying well over $1,500 per month in rent for a shitty studio apartment, or even just a room.  I spent an hour wandering under a rusting elevated railway which looked like something you see in the old Soviet Union, rows of shops with two or three out of a dozen premises open for business with the rest boarded up and the shutters covered in graffiti, streets covered in detritus and discarded household items, people on crutches or with an arm missing slowly making their way up the sidewalk or simply loitering around, and for every house which was well-kept and painted and with a tidy front yard there were three which were the exact opposite.  I spotted a trendy cafe here, and a hipster bar there, but these were crowded out by the same delis, laundromats, pawn shops, and liquor stores that I saw in Harlem.  For an area which was supposedly gentrifying and attracting “young professionals and artists” with rental prices soaring, it was an absolute fucking shithole.  The graffiti was sometimes nice, though:

New York is also a noisy city.  I spent a fair bit of time walking around in Manhattan, and everywhere I went I encountered a deafening cacophony of construction noise, garbage trucks, fire engines, car horns, police sirens, and people shouting very loudly.  It didn’t get much better at night either.  The size, and noise, and the sheer number of people: you know you’re in a proper city when you’re in New York.

I was on the subway one afternoon and this thin, unkempt woman in her late 50s or 60s boarded and subjected us to a 10 minute harangue about how she was homeless and without an income.  Rather than the direct “Madames et messieurs!” of the bums on the Paris metro or the hang-dog shuffling of their English counterparts on the London underground, this woman waxed eloquently about how terrible her situation was in the sort of high-pitched whining New York voice which to outsiders sounds like fingernails being run down a blackboard.  When she saw nobody was responding, she declared that it was “terrible” and she was “personally insulted” and that it “was no wonder the world is in a mess when people don’t care for one another”.  When she finally got off, everyone in the carriage breathed a sigh of relief and set about commenting on what we had just witnessed.  Nobody had any sympathy with her, I suspect because she was clearly educated, too eloquent, and complained too much.  In fact, her hectoring, haranguing tone sounded pretty much like that of the social justice warriors who you see interviewed on TV, the sort who made up the Occupy Wall Street movement.  If I were to guess – and I might of course be wrong and hence unnecessarily cruel – this woman was a former hippy and/or left-wing activist who shunned getting a decent job that would provide for her future and whose obnoxious personality left her with no friends when her unwise lifestyle choices caught up with her and Daddy Government wasn’t there to help out after all.  As I said, I don’t know, but if I’m right then you can expect a whole load more such people to be haunting the subway within the next decade or two.

The NYPD were everywhere, policing the city far more than you see their counterparts doing in European cities.  But their appearance was shocking: I have yet to see an overweight gendarme, and despite the occasional British policeman looking a bit unfit and pudgy, I’ve not seen any who were colossally overweight.  By contrast, an awful lot of the NYPD were huge fat bastards and far too often their hair was unkempt and their uniforms scruffy.  When I saw this I wasn’t surprised that the NYPD is often accused of shooting people unnecessarily, being heavy-handed, and otherwise being ill-disciplined.  There are good reasons why the US Marines, for a contrasting example, are beasted into keeping physically fit and their uniforms ironed and spotless before handing them firearms: the two go hand-in-hand.  I was seriously unimpressed, although my only interaction with them came when I witnessed a woman sitting on a bench on a street corner in lower Manhattan suddenly pitch forward and faceplant into the concrete, and I called it to the attention of a couple of nearby cops as a crowd gathered around her.  And no, it wasn’t Hillary Clinton.

On Labor Day I went with my friend out to the Billie Jean King tennis centre at Flushing Meadows in Queens, where the US Open was taking place.  I was a guest in the corporate box of my friend’s employer in the Arthur Ashe stadium, the main court in the complex, and I was told to be on my best behaviour.  I’m not a tennis fan in the least, but have a passing knowledge of the sport and so was not completely clueless.  When we arrived at 11:00am we were faced with an enormous line for the security check some 400m long, but thankfully we were in the USA and not in Africa, and we were herded through pretty rapidly.  The police presence was huge at the US Open, which some people said was down to their expecting a terrorist attack but I suspect had more to do with clocking up some overtime on a cushy job.  Those guts have to grow somehow.  By 11:30am we were inside and I made a start on my first whisky of the day.  Two men that I didn’t know were playing on the court, and I ignored them in order to consume excellent hotdogs, meet some of the other guests, and drink more whisky.  Naturally everything was free, and the waiter wasn’t skimping on the measures.  One of the people I met there was a senior manager at Steinway & Sons, and we had a good chat about the high-end piano market.  Summary: making a spectacular product that lasts for 200 years is not always a good thing.  The second match that came on turned out to be a belter, between Venus Williams and the Czech Karolina Pliskova.  As I said, I’m not really into tennis but this match was a nail-biter, with four or five match points going to waste.  Everyone was supporting Williams, except me: the Williams sisters were never very popular among Brits, although I’m not entirely sure why.  Eventually Pliskova prevailed, and I celebrated by drinking yet more.  By the time the third game came on around 4pm I was pretty wasted, and after watching Serena Williams steamroller her opponent in the first set, we decided to head home to beat the traffic.  I concluded that no matter what the sport, a day spent in a corporate box with free booze is worth doing.  The fountain outside the stadium was nice, too:

Towards the end of my visit I took a subway to lower Manhattan and strolled over to “ground zero” and the 9/11 memorial.  I have to confess, I was unaware a memorial had even been built, I thought the Freedom Tower served that purpose.  So I was quite surprised to see the two pools of cascading water built on the footprints of the original twin towers, and I found them to be very tastefully done.  I was glad that what they had chosen marked clearly where the original towers stood, and I had intended to find this out anyway having been up to the WTC observation deck when I last visited in 2000.  I didn’t go in the museum itself, nor up to the observation deck of the new tower, not being particularly interested in either and preferring to wander around Battery Park instead.

Aside from the Freedom Tower, another addition to the Manhattan skyline since my last visit was 432 Park Avenue, an extremely tall and slender square building which probably could not have been constructed with such dimensions until recently.  The height of this tower relative to those around it makes it very prominent and able to be seen from most parts of New York, and I couldn’t help but inquire about it.  A residential property (the tallest in the world), the best apartments are rumoured to go for $80m-$100m.  The oil price is going to have to shift a bit before I’ll be laying down a deposit, but having lived half a mile up in the sky in Melbourne’s Eureka Tower I know I don’t like living much above 20 floors anyway.  Regarding its construction, I found this interesting:

Also aimed at reducing the potentially uncomfortable effects of swaying due to wind vortex loading on such a flexible tower, the window grid and interior space of 2 floors between every 12 occupied floors are left open to allow the wind to pass through.

Which explains the gaps.  I had hitherto assumed it was down to dodgy builders making off with the money before finishing the job, like you’d see in most of the places where I’ve been posted.

Before I undertook this trip I was half-minded to get a different job and live in New York for a while, just to experience it.  Now I’m back, I think I can safely scrap that idea.  I had a fantastic time: the food, the drink, the company of my friends and the conversation, and I’d love to go back.  But it is simply too big for me to live in, and too crowded, not to mention too damned hot in summer (the freezing in winter I could probably cope with).  Also, there are just a few too many weirdos and freaks occupying the place for my liking.  God forbid London and Paris have their share of weirdos, but New York…like everything else, it’s on a different scale.

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16 thoughts on “Ten Days in New York

  1. “everyone was awfully polite”: some people say that in a heavily armed society it pays to be polite.

  2. “wind vortex loading”: yeah, vortex shedding is what makes the telephone wires sing in winter. I wonder whether that building behaves like an Aeolian harp.

  3. Interesting travelogue. Haven’t been for years, although everyone has a vague sense they know the city on account of those old television shows. I worked in the service sector of the oil industry, so Texas/Louisiana was my regular beat. Little Sis and Niece visit NY to shop, however I can’t imagine them wandering the streets of Harlem. That said, most of the violence I’ve witnessed over the years was between rival adversaries rather than random members of the public, and the most dangerous time of your life tends to be when you are a teenager rather than an adult.

  4. Dearieme – except that NY is one of those places where gun ownership is virtually impossible. Ony cops and crooks have guns which is why the homicide rate there is the same as everywhere else – law abiding gun owners don’t kill people.

  5. “…dawdling aimlessly in between run-down “delis” (as Americans call corner shops)”….

    Tim, locals call these bodegas, not delis. A bodega may have a deli inside but they’re two distinct things.

  6. the most dangerous time of your life tends to be when you are a teenager rather than an adult.

    This is very true: I noticed that when you go out to bars and clubs in the UK as a teenager or early 20s, you’re having to work quite hard to avoid getting into fights with people from the same age group. By the time you reach late 20s and early 30s, that tends to disappear. For some reason, young folk tend to leave older folk alone, and older folk aren’t the ones causing trouble. I suspect there is a survival instinct going on here: the older guy might not be able to fight you, so he may choose to kill you instead.

  7. Tim, locals call these bodegas, not delis. A bodega may have a deli inside but they’re two distinct things.

    Ah, thanks for that. I never actually heard anyone call them anything, let alone a local. I just noticed most of them said “deli” on the sign, and assumed that’s what they are called.

  8. yeah, vortex shedding is what makes the telephone wires sing in winter.

    I know all about vortex shedding, vortex-induced vibration, and Kármán vortex streets. It was one of the few topics on my engineering course that I found genuinely fascinating, and one of the few which I still appreciated when I went into work. Those 10 days I spent on the Yuri Topchev in 2008 was because the spans of the subsea pipelines were too large, resulting in vortex-induced vibration which, if they coincide with a natural frequency and send the pipe span into resonance, would cycle through the fatigue life in a matter of hours.

  9. Saw Warren Zevon interviewed by Letterman on Zevon’s promotional tour of Europe and he said, ‘Well, Europe is big.’ Yes? America is not small either. and NY is one of the hubs.

  10. @ james higham,

    This is very strange! When I was in New York I was in a shop and heard a song which I found catchy and in the country style that I like. I Shazammed it and found it was Warren Zevon’s Pitiful Pitiful Me. Until then I had never heard of him or the song, and just last night I started browsing through his stuff. And now you pop up and mention him. It’s weird how often this happens…

  11. I don’t know about the survival instinct (an older guy killing you). However I do concede that when a teenager the point is to compete against your peers. Going up against an old guy runs the risk, as you say, of coming face to face with Charles Bronson.

  12. However I do concede that when a teenager the point is to compete against your peers.

    True: most of it is just posturing.

  13. Re, north of Ancoats in the 90’s, I ran the doors of a couple of places in that area as well as in Liverpool….it certainly had its moments!

  14. @ Thud,

    I’m impressed! Only a little confused: I thought you could not emigrate to the US with a criminal record, yet holding a conviction for violent assault was a prerequisite for working the doors in Manchester. 😉

  15. Tim, I managed to base myself as running the Manchester academy while my partners took the flak for running Hac etc, twas fun…sometimes.

  16. The Manchester Academy! I was with a Manchester University alumnus the other night and we were trying to remember the name of that place! It was a good venue that, and no serious trouble: just drunk students (of whom I was one).

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