NEW YORK, NEW YORK, it’s a helluva town!
I thought so too when I arrived in 1964 on the Queen Mary to see the World’s Fair. First impressions were of size. Steaks, cars, skyscrapers… all huge. The World’s Fair, a paean to consumerism, was no different. The Illinois pavilion had a huge robotic Abraham Lincoln who sat in an armchair and then actually rose and spoke – a five-minute medley of his speeches. Disney created it. There was stirring music. Its scale, ingenuity and tackiness were awesome. New Yorkers weren’t embarrassed. Nor were they by bluntness. Street signs yelled ‘WALK!’ ‘DON’T WALK!’ No pretty please. ‘EAT A PIG SANDWICH’ commanded a sign outside a diner. Somehow ‘pork’ seems more genteel.
NYC is a town of extremes. Manhattan, its hub, was bought extremely cheaply ($1300 at today’s prices) from Native Americans. If they were chuffed at the time their descendants aren’t. The most obvious extreme about NYC is extreme wealth. Ironically, despite some citizens being the richest in the world the town has nearly gone broke many times. During the Depression one in four New Yorkers was out of work. Roosevelt’s New Deal was supported by NYC’s Republican mayor, La Guardia. In return FDR saved the city financially and cut off patronage for La Guardia’s enemies. La Guardia built public housing, parks and airports – and defeated the Tammany Hall political machine, a byword for corruption, that controlled the city. In 1975, again on the verge of bankruptcy, NYC sought help from Washington. The Daily News summed up the President’s response – ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead!’ But fearing the national effect of an insolvent NYC he relented. New Yorkers disdain conformity. During Prohibition there were 100,000 speakeasies in the city. City to Washington: Drop Dead! And they invented the Martini, Bloody Mary and (of course) Manhattan… The first thing immigrants once saw from the boat wasn’t the Statue of Liberty (1885) – a French kit in 350 bits that took 4 months to assemble – but a hotel (and brothel) on Coney Island in the shape of a gigantic elephant. The resort of Coney Island was the only thing Freud liked about America.
New York (then New Amsterdam) was a Dutch-owned trading post in the late 18C until taken over (and renamed) by the British. The population swelled with immigrants from Ireland and Germany, and then Italy. In 1842 the Croton Aqueduct brought drinking water to Manhattan and the city. By 1910 New York over a million Jews and more Italians (500,000) than Rome. They worked and lived downtown, below 14th Street, making it uncongenial to the gentry who moved uptown. A divide was born. By 1930, 300,000 African Americans lived in NYC, mostly in Harlem, above 110th Street. A black culture grew up among the brownstone mansions and iron fire escapes. Perversely the Cotton Club, a Harlem landmark (1923-40), where the likes of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday performed, was for whites only. But the jokily named Café Society, which opened in Greenwich Village in 1938, was the first integrated nightclub in the US.
Some escaped expensive Manhattan or cramped slums to head across the East River to Brooklyn. Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1883, the precursor of countless architectural marvels. In 1964 I’d planned to see the august Penn Station, where ‘one entered the city like a god’ (Vincent Scully). ‘Too late’ my cabby said. ‘It was pulled down last year.’ The Center Theater (1932), an Art Deco masterpiece, lasted barely 20 years. Nothing stays still. Even the cab business. The iconic Checker cab is no more. 15,000 once roamed the city, driven by Italians, Jews and Irish. Cabbies are now recent immigrants, no one else wants the grief. Since the ’60s, entire neighbourhoods, like SoHo, have reversed the 19C transformation from residential to commercial and become ‘gentrified’. Crime has waned. The South Bronx was a no-go area in 1970. Tough work from mayors Dinkins and Giuliani cleaned it up. The Mob too has been confronted. The city once boasted gangsters nastier than anyone else’s. Like Vito Genovese, who convened a meeting in 1957 attended by 100 mafiosi, as though it was an AGM of stockholders. It was raided by cops. Most AGMs are not. But hoods are not the story of NYC. That story is the art of the impossible. Rockefeller Center was built during the Depression, a monument to enterprise and confidence. The Empire State Building, where King Kong fought his last battle, took only one year and 45 days to erect! A triumph of pizzazz. Steinbeck summed up New York’s allure: ‘New York’s climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it – once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.’