New York: Introduction

  • © Mimi88,

    © Mimi88,

New York City is synonymous with the American dream and the only way to understand this massive, adrenaline-fuelled, influential and nerve-racking metropolis is to come and see it for yourself. Wake up to the sounds of the city that never sleeps – cars hooting, sirens howling and screeching brakes and then get up close and personal with the city!

The city has made a full recovery after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks and is once again a proud and vibrant global capital of commerce – hectic, loud, provocative, immense and powerful. Almost too powerful when you consider the dramatic impact the Wall Street financial crisis of 2008 has had on the whole world! New York has also retained its position as the world’s entertainment capital.

Every evening it plays host to a diverse array of film premiers, musicals, ballets, gala theatre events, rock and pop concerts, jazz sessions and high-end opera and its multitude of cutting-edge clubs perfectly encapsulate the current zeitgeist. The New York audiences are varied, enthusiastic, discerning and above all, critical. If you can make it here you can make it anywhere, as Frank Sinatra says in his famous hit New York, New York. 

Manhattan south of 14th Street exudes its own particular charm

Downtown Manhattan (in other words everything south of 14th Street) is where it all happens. The restaurant and bar scene here is far more exciting than in Midtown Manhattan or in northern Manhattan. Trendy new hotels, hip nightclubs and daring architecture such as the Cooper Union building and the New Museum draw locals and tourists alike to the south of the city.

Here visitors will find old run-down buildings next to stylish bars, the historical next to the modern and it is these contrasts that lure the visitor. Robert de Niro also helped make the area popular with his TriBeCa Film Festival that was launched in 2003. Every year in May international filmmakers and Hollywood movie stars descend on the city. The event is a magnet for movie buffs, celebrity hunters  and everyone who is fan of the glitz and glamour of red carpet events.

In the hustle and bustle of the night Manhattan feels as if it is one single, massive party and that impression continues even as the day begins when the subway buskers and musicians (possibly the stars of tomorrow) ply their trade. Skateboarders turn street squares into sports arenas and just about every street corner has its own stand-up comedian. The pace, the drama and the theatre of the city are unrivalled and as Simone de Beauvoir commented ‘there is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless’.

As the media hub of the United States, everything cultural this city has to offer tends to be amplified. Key global television broadcasters, major news magazines and the New York Times – arguably the world’s most important daily newspaper – are all based here. All the leading publishing houses and much record companies are based in the city and use it as their platform to the world market. The city also attracts creative people like no other: actors, artists, authors, designers and even software developers. For centuries New York has thrived on, and drawn its energy from, the constantly changing cycle of boom and bust.

Today around eight million people live the city. Once the world’s largest, it can no longer lay claim to that title as it has been overtaken by other megacities. Metro - politan New York also includes areas such as Long Island, Westchester County, New Jersey and Connecticut has 24 million inhabitants and most work in Manhattan, the city centre. 

Added to this figure are all the tourists who join the throng on the fast paced pavements. The speed of life here may well be one of the reasons why New York does not have a strong political history. Before 9/11 its most memorable event took place in April 1776, when George Washington relocated his headquarters to the banks of the Hudson River during the war of independence against the British. After World War II the United Nations set up their headquarters in New York. After the shocking events of 9/11, New York became a political focal point for American politics and the UN headquarters were the world’s focus point for the Gulf War. Today the importance attributed to New York cannot be ascribed to politics. Politics remains the domain of Washington, D.C. 

Parks, playgrounds and bicycles – the city has gone green

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spearheaded a drive to turn New York into an environmentally friendly city. Times Square is now a pedestrian precinct, there are new cycle paths everywhere, traffic islands in Manhattan are going green and the umbrellas of outdoor bistros are a common sight. A disused elevated subway railway line has been transformed into an urban park. The lengths of Manhattan Island along the Hudson River are now parkland and beneath Brooklyn Bridge miles of river frontage have also been reclaimed and boast an urban beach, boat trips and playgrounds.

Even the Empire State Building has undergone extensive renovations to optimise its energy consumption. To ease traffic congestion, new bus lanes and cycle lanes have been introduced albeit with strong criticism from the powerful car lobby. In amongst all of this are the  sounds of the bells of the bicycle rickshaws that will get you around quickly and safely without leaving an environmental footprint. However, at times it is still easiest to get around on foot. 

New York has for some time now prided itself for being one of America’s most pedestrian- friendly cities. Many of the city’s attractions are located in close proximity to one another and the grid layout and numerical street numbers are easy to follow so you should find your way around with ease. As always when travelling in a big city it is a good idea to follow the usual travel rules especially if you suddenly find yourself in unfamiliar surrounds. 

New York is a city of contrasts. Winters are dry with freezing temperatures. In summer the mercury can easily rise into the 80s (over 30 degrees Celsius) and it can be very, very humid. The endless grey concrete jungle is juxtaposed by the expansive green belt of Central Park. Skyscrapers dwarf church spires. There is a constant dichotomy between large and small, rich and poor, old and new. Every race and nation is represented here. Driven by the hope for a better future many have turned their backs on their countries of origin for political or economic reasons. All have brought with them a touch of home, be it cuisine from Ethiopia, samba dancing from Brazil, festive parades from Italy or the dragon dance from China all contributing to making this a city of unimaginable diversity. 

The mix of immigrant nations is constantly changing. In the 19th century the first wave of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Austria and Russia all made their influence on the English society and also assimilated themselves well. At the beginning of the 20th century Italian and Polish immigrants joined them and later New York also became a safe haven for the persecuted Jews of Europe. This melting pot or fusion of diverse cultures is unique to New York and is unrivalled in the United States. It is for this reason that New Yorkers also consider themselves as a distinct breed, culturally aware, abreast of the economic situation, enquiring, tolerant and even arrogant at times.

In more recent years the waves of immigrants have included millions of people from central and South America, hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese, as well as many Afro-Americans from the southern states. Their arrival has once again changed the dynamics of the city. The recent influx has been so great that the city has almost lost one of its most important attributes: the ease with which it is able to merge, mix and integrate many diverse cultures. This has completely changed its character. In 1989 the first African American mayor of New York, David Dinkins described it best in his acceptance speech when he said, ‘New York is not a melting pot. It is a gorgeous mosaic of people’. 

Between Harlem and the Statue of Liberty

Sadly the ‘gorgeous mosaic’ symbolising equality is showing flaws. The immigrants are invariably poor and often illegal while those working on Wall Street have had their earnings skyrocket to dizzying heights once again after the 2008 financial crisis. Although the occasional broker may have lost their job, those remaining have once again been able to make huge profits in a short space of time. After the American public bailed out the banks, in October 2011 everything came to a head with the Occupy Wall Street protests against corporate dominance of politics. New York’s real flaws are discernible if you simply examine its five boroughs. Independently they could each be an entire city.

This was indeed the case up until 1898 before Greater New York was formed by merging Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. Today Brooklyn is gaining in popularity thanks to its museums, architecture, massive Prospect Park, designer boutiques and sophisticated restaurants. Williamsburg in northern Brooklyn has become the perfect quarter for a night out on the town. Here young artists and designers have created a network of galleries, restaurants and interesting small shops that are well worth a visit. Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx tend to attract fewer visitors. They are residential areas with a more suburban flair. Tourists usually make Manhattan – between the Statue of Liberty and Harlem – their ultimate destination. It is after all the heart of the city!

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