The World’s Great Towns, June 1997
By the Editors
Climate: Typical Northeast, tempered by summer cottages
Number of McDonald’s: 61, including one near Wall Street with a baby-grand piano
Gestalt: One-stop shopping
Yes, you read correctly. No, we’re not going to apologize. And yes, we realize that the city that never sleeps has its share of loathsome things: divisive politics; a tacit presumption that every place else is basically Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Kathie Lee Gifford. Still, in what Tom Wolfe called “the irresistible destination of all those who
insist on being where things are happening,” people can and do lead lives centered around outdoor grace. New Yorkers approach sport with the same in-your-face moxie they bring to every other pursuit, however. Name one other citizenry that would pack a “funk aerobics” class taught by a drag queen or take lessons in Filipino stick-fighting. Feel like running in Central Park —
but for exactly 4.7 miles and near water only half the time? The N.Y. Road Runners Club has mapped out various loops right down to the meter. Plus: The crime rate has plummeted, panhandlers are increasingly civil, the economy is roaring, and the real estate market has loosened up for the first time in a decade. Basically, it’s the unexpected that makes New York a great city to
live in. The fact that you can cop an elephant ride, spy on migrating herons for hours, scale a boulder, or watch a cricket match all without leaving town. There’s also the joy of sampling most of the world’s cuisines without leaving the sidewalk, or dining at a restaurant whose wait staff consists entirely of identical twins. And when you want to get away for the weekend —
and you will — a surprising number of natural options await nearby: peaks, surf, wetlands, and all that they entail. The defense rests.
What’s Out There
Watch NYPD Blue and you’d never guess NY is so green. Sure, Central Park is world famous. But it’s only one option. There are botanic gardens in Brooklyn; tidal wetlands in Queens’s Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge; and the Bronx Zoo, the nation’s biggest urban zoo, which virtually created the vogue for faithfully recreated habitats. For less contemplative
pursuits, set sail off City Island or belay at Chelsea Piers, home of the East Coast’s largest indoor climbing wall. Within an easy drive of Fifth Avenue, you can sunbathe at Jones Beach, surf-cast at Montauk Point, beach-camp at Hither Hills State Park, tackle a four-mile gorge hike at Bear Mountain, or wet your bead-head nymph in more than 500 miles of prime Catskills trout
streams. Twice a day on weekends, Metro North can take you from Grand Central straight to the Appalachian Trail. Oh yeah, there’s also Maine, Martha’s Vineyard, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, and the entire Atlantic shore.
New York is filled with people who work all the time and rarely talk about anything else, unless it’s real estate. It’s also filled with poets and performance artists trying to make a living disparaging just these types. Culture, in fact, serves as social warfare. Going to the opera is good; going on a comp ticket is better. And theater tickets are barely worth having if the run
isn’t sold out. On the other hand, “getting away with things” is also good: Park your blanket just outside Central Park Summerstage, for example, to hear gratis what the suckers inside paid for. And while New Yorkers earn their reputation for being, uh, direct, you’ll nowadays encounter unexpected courtesies: A man on the subway warns you about the $10 bill sticking out of your
pocket or a boy approaches a blind man at an intersection and says, “It’s on ‘walk,’ sir.” There’s even been talk of actual eye contact among sidewalk-goers. Violent crime, after all, is down 44 percent since 1990. None of which will be any consolation when it’s pouring out and somebody snatches your cab.
No residence visas for Americans — just that final-circle-of-hell ordeal known as finding an apartment. Those who wish to avoid an agent’s fees resort to guerrilla tactics, papering neighborhoods with flyers offering a reward for help finding a vacancy. In general, New York apartments are still smaller and pricier than any rentable space this side of Hong Kong, ranging from
about $600 for, say, a studio in Queens to $6,000 for a two-bedroom on Park Avenue. A sampling of neighborhoods (self-contained villages, really): TriBeCa, once cheap, now scarifyingly hip; the Lower East Side, rehabbed tenements that immigrants once scratched all their lives to flee; the Upper West Side, family-friendly and fairly affordable; and Hell’s Kitchen (or its sanitized
name, Clinton), where you’ll find some steals if you’re willing to compromise. In Brooklyn’s Park Slope you can share a fetching brownstone (about $2,000 for two bedrooms) near tree-lined avenues, if you don’t mind lots of coffeehouses with Open Mike Nights.
Nine to Five
Nowhere in the world is there a larger congregation of people doing exactly what they want professionally — which means that they either have their dream job or have no definable job at all. A quick inventory of the city’s daily schedule should clue you in: Freelancers and artisans own the midmornings; butchers, union folk, and foreign-market bond traders own the late
afternoons. Everyone owns the nights. Basically, if you want work you’ll be able to find it, and usually at the hours you like. All the standard employment tricks work here: want ads, agencies, word-of-mouth. And once you find that swank position, you can begin engaging in a time-honored New York tradition — looking to trade up to an even swankier spot.
You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? (“Oh, you’re in a hurry? Certainly you may cut in front of me.”)
The Hard Sell
New York is not just a great city, it’s a great place. Even if the city weren’t there, you could still see that right away. The natural coincidences of geography — the archipelago of stone islands near the coastal shore, the deepwater harbor, the immense river arriving from points north and west, the ocean-tempered
climate — would make the site famous just as is. Today the city’s image is its skyline, but a wide-angle view of the landscape explains the city better. To begin with, it’s well-irrigated; when white people first began to build there, they found so many plausible harbors and bays they weren’t sure where the main city would
be. Manhattan Island, a natural dock, won out, adjoining as it does the great inland avenue of the Hudson River. Early sketches of Manhattan show its lower shoreline densely crosshatched with masts and riggings. For someone arriving by ship, leaving the open ocean for the enclosure of the Verrazano Narrows and upper New York Bay,
it must have been like stepping from a wilderness into a bustling hall.
People lived outdoors more then than they do now, and appreciated the advantages of place. New York’s original genius was not for interior sophistication or style, but for how it improved what it already had outdoors. With no help from anyone, the city and state jury-rigged the Erie Canal, a series of shallow trenches and
natural waterways linking the Hudson River to Buffalo and the Great Lakes. To celebrate the canal’s opening in 1825, its boosters put cannon all along the route from Buffalo to New York, each within earshot of the next. Then they fired them in sequence, west to east, each cannoneer touching off the charge when he heard the report
from the cannon upstream. The Echo Cannonade, as they called it, took an hour and 20 minutes to reach the crowds waiting in lower Manhattan. New York would be the preeminent East Coast city from that moment on.
The city’s key is its water: fresh and salt, both. Nowadays we build cities that have neither and hope that technology will get us by. Much of New York sits on a large supply of groundwater that it barely uses, having decided long ago to build aqueducts to a system of reservoirs upstate. Justifiably, the city has long bragged
about the clean tap water it provides. Droughts come and go, but usually upstate is wet enough that you see rills bubbling from the rock face in cuts along the highway. The mix of fresh and salt in the coastal waters around the city produces a mix of fish species like that of ethnic groups on land. People fish from the New York
shoreline in summer, spring, and fall; no other big city I know of has fishing as good as New York’s. (Eating the fish is something else again, according to health warnings issued by the state.) Anadromous fish throng the shores, especially at times of year when water temperatures change. Joseph Mitchell, the greatest reporter
who ever wrote for The New Yorker, used to sit on abandoned railroad docks on the Hudson’s New Jersey side and spend hours watching the river; once he was rewarded by the site of a six-foot sturgeon leaping clear, right in front of him, as it made its way upstream. In the fall, when the striped bass
are running, you can anchor just off Wall Street and catch big fish one after another until you’re tired. Spring still brings the annual run of shad, a species whose Latin name (I’m cribbing again from Mitchell), sapidissima, means “good to eat to a superlative degree.” Usually the shad start to run
when the forsythia bloom. Shad just arrived from the ocean are OK to eat; the yellow of forsythia blossoms still makes my mouth water for shad roe saut‰ed in garlic and olive oil.
I lived in New York for years before I even noticed that it had an outdoors. To me it was a nighttime scene, fast and dangerous and strobe-lit, set usually in some cavernous converted loft space of unknown, perhaps unlimited size. New York was the first place I’d ever been that could convey this sense of spatial infinitude
indoors: the office door opening onto the long hall, the hall leading to the elevator, the elevator leading to the subway, the subway to the tunnel, the tunnel to another station, to another train, to another tunnel, never allowing the traveler to pop free into the sunlight until he was far away in the Bronx or the marshes of New
Jersey. The first time I really saw New York’s outside was during the bicentennial celebration of 1976, when I stood downtown on an elevated span of the West Side Highway in a crowd so dense no one could move and the term “pedlock” had to be used in subsequent news stories about it. From there I could see an even larger
gathering, two million people waiting on the dusty flat landfill where Battery Park City now stands. The evening could have ended in anticlimax and disappointment; the fireworks display turned out to be a bust, and no other ceremony had been planned. Instead we just stood there, the biggest crowd we’d ever seen, while a restless
murmuring many acres across rose from us into the summer night sky. I could see the lights on the Navy ships in the harbor, and on pleasure boats nearer shore, and on airplanes circling above Newark Airport across the river. The open-air wordlessness of it all was better than any speech, the patriotism silently manifest and real.
For a utopian moment, the city made perfect sense as a way for people to live in the world.
Back then I used to travel often to places in the middle of the country where New York City was regarded with contempt and disdain. Whenever people would tell me how awful New York was — a liberty I would never have taken myself on the subject of their neighborhood or town — I usually asked them if they would
prefer that all seven million of us came spilling over their particular countryside instead. Confined as the city is by ocean and river, it has been less able than other cities to solve social problems by horizontal sprawl. Its growth had to be intensive rather than dispersed, up rather than out. One result is that you can find
uncrowded, quiet, remote-seeming landscapes within sight of the skyscrapers. For example, the strip of Hudson River shoreline below the George Washington Bridge on the New Jersey side; or Sandy Hook beach, across from the entry to New York harbor, where blowing stalks of grass scrape circles in the sand and beach plums ripen as
undisturbed as on Cape Cod.
With all its pavement, New York is good for most any kind of wheeled sport, and the bike riders and skateboarders and in-line skaters doing routines to music on their Walkmans all have their places they go. And of course, you can run, as millions (it seems) do. I have always preferred to walk. My ideal route takes me over the
pedestrian walkway of one of the major bridges; I like the seven-league-boots feeling of crossing the East or Hudson River on foot. I used to go 14 miles most Sundays. My record was one Sunday when I started early and walked from downtown Manhattan up the West Side to the George Washington Bridge, across to New Jersey, and along
Boulevard East to my friend Bill’s house in North Bergen — maybe 23 miles. I never saw a sturgeon in my wanderings, but I’ve seen a peregrine falcon picking a pigeon apart and eating it on a building cornice while pigeon feathers fluttered down, and a blue heron in a pond in Prospect Park, and sanderlings in the surf on
Brighton Beach, and a cock pheasant and a hen pheasant running among abandoned car bodies in a patch of brush below Washington Heights. I’ve watched crows chasing an owl off a monument, and a raccoon scuttling into some leaves in Brooklyn, and two mice on a curb along Fifth Avenue spinning around each other on their hind legs in
a high-speed mouse dance. Once as I was passing by a park, a large rat hopped from a drainpipe in a wall and walked by the other way. I turned to look at him, and he turned, too, and then pulled back his upper lip and cursed at me in Rat.
That reminds me of the guy I read about who used to fly-fish for rats in Central Park. As I recall, he was fishing or practice-casting at a Central Park lake when a rat grabbed his backcast as it lay on the ground. This gave him the idea of casting bright-colored flies into ratty areas of the park and seeing what he came up
with. He caught a lot of rats. Sometimes a hooked rat ran away from him, sometimes it ran at him. Sometimes a big one took quite a bit of line before he could reel it in. The unhooking process was dicey and involved oven mitts and corn tongs. New York is a city of unfettered possibility. It’s the opposite of a dead end. In New
York, you could go for a sail, spend $54 million on a painting of some irises, have drinks with T‰a Leoni, fly-fish for rats — whatever. And the possibilities will lead you outside as often as they lead you indoors. Flying over the city in the summer, even when the sky is sooty, I’m still surprised at how many ball
fields I see, and how many parks, and at how green the panorama appears. What were the city fathers thinking of when they set aside a piece of land two-and-a-half miles long by half a mile wide for a public park in the middle of Manhattan? In light of the fortunes that had already been made in New York real estate, such a
decision went beyond mere urban planning to a deeper statement about what is important in a person’s life. When you have to work harder to find nature to enjoy, as you do in any city, maybe you learn to value it more. Hemmed in by cityscapes, perhaps you grasp all the more eagerly at the natural, the way men used to faint at the
sight of an unclothed ankle in Victorian times.
By design or otherwise, New York in every season is full of intimations of the natural world. On certain spring days I used to look out the window of my midtown office, sick with angling fever, and glimpse the blue rectangle of Hudson River at the far end of the cross street. And in my mind the rectangle multiplied itself to
the blue of Catskill rivers, of Maine ponds, of bonefish flats in the Yucatßn. Any city that endures accommodates, somehow or other, the vaster world outdoors. New York City makes you feel you could be anyplace before the sun goes down. — Ian Frazier
Ilustration by Gary Baseman