I opened Writing New York, a one thousand page book compiled by Phillip Lopate containing extracts about New York from the writings of 108 authors, including Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Jose Martin, Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Mario Puzo. This was an intimidating start for someone who had sat down to describe an eventful week in New York. But the words of James Joyce on the first page revived my courage: ‘New York is just too big, too complex to be served by anyone writer. At best he can only offer his little tribute to something he loves, but which is beyond him.’ So here is my New York!
From the moment that I began to walk the grid-plan streets of this city, what struck me most was the fact that only adjectives in the superlative were appropriate. The widest, the longest, the highest, the biggest, the brightest, the busiest, the grandest…
The cultural diversity is overwhelming, with Jewish, Irish, Afro-American, German, Italian, Chinese, Latin American, and many many more communities turning New York into a Tower of Babel. This is undoubtedly the source of New York’s inexhaustible energy.
In such a cosmopolitan atmosphere you cannot feel like a stranger. But my first sensation was of being Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnagians, as I wandered amongst towering skyscrapers competing for supremacy. The only answer was to put the city in perspective by looking down on them, so I headed for the observation terrace of the Empire State Building, the highest building in the world until the World Trade Centre was constructed. From this bird’s eye view, I tried to spot the main landmarks in Manhattan. To the south, the Atlantic Ocean stretched to the horizon. The glass and steel twin towers of the World Trade Center, seemingly enveloped in a transparent sheath of light, jostled their way into that blue vista.
Nearby was Wall Street, the narrow thoroughfare where the heart of the New York Stock Exchange beats.
The elegant Gothic style Woolworth Building, which until 1930 was New York’s highest building, is in the same area. A tiny dot to the right was the Statue of Liberty and in the same direction was Ellis Island where millions of immigrants first set foot in the United States. On my left hand, far below, were the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. The building facing me, with its striking triangular shape, had to be Flatiron.
The opposite is New York’s largest and most colorful ethnic quarter, Chinatown. Although from here the activities at pavement level were invisible, I could visualize the roads lined by shops selling souvenirs, the pavement stalls selling vegetables and fruits both familiar and exotic, the golden fried duck, chicken, and seafood of all kinds displayed in the restaurant windows, and the hats and T-shirts on street barrows.
Little Italy, diminished by the rapid development of Chinatown, remains a magnet for those in search of cafés and restaurants, especially in hot weather when the tables are brought out onto the pavement, and you can savor your meal while watching the ebb and flow of street life. Soho is a district of artists, its streets lined by chic galleries, cultural centers, cafés, restaurants, and shops. It is also famous for its architecture, particularly that featuring cast-iron, the finest examples of which are to be seen on Greene Street. The fire escapes on the facades, which are one of the symbols of New York, astonished me over and over again.
Still, on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, I now turned to the north, where the first sight to strike my eyes was the cap of the Art Deco style Chrysler Building, shaped like a car radiator and glistening like a ball of fire. In the middle of the panorama was the Rockefeller Center.
In the forecourts or on the facades of almost every tower are magnificent sculptures. This region of skyscrapers is also the center of the media, with the NBC, Time Warner, and Associated Press buildings, as well as Radio City Music Hall, famous for its year-round program of spectacular events. Down at ground level, you know you are approaching Fifth Avenue, home to such exclusive shops as Tiffany Co., Cartier, Bulgari, and Versace, by the increasing number of expensive and fashionably dressed people. Central Park is the city’s ‘back garden’, shared by all the buildings of Manhattan, which is bounded to the west by the Hudson River and to the east by the East River.
The two places I enjoyed most in New York were Times Square and Central Park, each very different in character and atmosphere, but equally memorable.
Times Square, with its gigantic colorful advertisements, huge neon signs for the Broadway theatres, and brightly illuminated shops is where ‘the stars come down to earth’. Described as the Great White Way, Times Square with its glistening pavements, fearsome traffic, and frenzied crowds, is one of the most popular hubs of the city. Yet within walking distance lies an oasis of serene natural beauty, where the sun is not blocked out by towering buildings.
This vast oasis in Central Park, filled with people lying on the grass sunbathing, reading books beneath the trees, playing with their dogs, rollerblading or cycling, and lovers strolling. The districts around Central Park are the wealthiest in Manhattan. The imposing apartment blocks here sport grand entrances and smartly dressed doormen.
I see I have not got beyond Manhattan in describing New York, but that is the part of the city with which we are most familiar from films. The music which even warms the iron piles in the subway stations, the smoke rising from drains in the streets, the yellow taxies, street dancers, fire escapes, and the historic Brooklyn Bridge… This bridge is the best vantage point to watch Manhattan at sunset when the sky is stained red and the torch in the hand of the Statue of Liberty blazes. The lights in the skyscrapers wink on as if clouds of fireflies are descending on the city. A motorboat chugs past, making waves that lightly slap against the river banks. The lights of Pier 17 on the opposite bank slant into the water. The camera zooms in, and there you are, live from New York.