An Empire State of Mind
By Andrew McCarthy
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I’VE BEEN IN this relationship for 32 years. I was a wide-eyed youth when it all began – a fresh-faced punk, awed and thrilled and a little fearful of her power. She was terrible beauty like no other, but going through a rough patch. She had a bad reputation and was nearly bankrupt – even the President of the United States had publicly tuned his back on her. It didn’t matter. When I took a one-way trip across the Hudson River from New Jersey, settled into a fourth-floor walk-up off Washington Square in Greenwich Village, it was love at first sight – this was New York City.
Over all these years my relationship with the Big Apple has waxed and waned, soared and plummeted. I’ve felt completely understood by her and also so utterly alone in her belly. I’ve never been happier, or more desperate. I’m one of eight million, but my relationship with the city,like everyone’s, is unique.
Places that might mean nothing to you are filled with resonance for me. All these years later I still can’t walk past the anonymous corner of 9th Avenue and 47th Street without remembering the lobby of a rundown office building I was in when I heard the news that President Reagan had been shot.
That building is long gone, torn down when Hells Kitchen began its transformation from Irish American slum into one of the city’s hipper areas more than a decade ago, yet the memory lingers and informs my relationship with the neighbourhood, enriches it. And just down the street, you might walk past Rudy’s Bar and not look twice. But it was the first place I took a legal drink in New York. Back then Rudy’s was what we called “a bucket of blood”. The place hasn’t changed much over the years, it’s still a “dive,” but the crowd has softened and today you’re as likely to see bridge-and-tunnel tourists as you are to meet the surly old codgers nursing their scotch.
Like all relationships, things evolve and change over time. The funky Greenwich Village of my youth has morphed into one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the city, pricing out the artists and oddballs. Places I relied upon have closed and left me wanting – only to reward my exploration and deeper investment. When my favourite diner closed down I felt betrayed, until I found the Lexington Candy Shop Luncheonette further uptown. The burgers are even better, and the chocolate shake richer than any I’ve had in the city.
As with any deep attraction, core attributes abide – dinner at Joe Allen on Restaurant Row is still my favourite way to cap a night at the theater (and their unadvertised Bar Centrale upstairs behind an unmarked door is even better). And Sunday brunch at Balthazar, a big boisterous bistro in Soho, never disappoints.
Yet the obvious charms outsiders adore, locals often take for granted. I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty, but I’ve repeatedly taken the (free) Staten Island Ferry at sunset and watched the sky turn purple over the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan.
I never went up to the observation deck in the World Trade Center, yet I’ve been to the site of Ground Zero numerous times since 9/11, and recommend it to every visitor. And only once have I been skating at Rockefeller Center beneath the giant Christmas tree – the idea of coming to New York to go skating is like going to Las Vegas for the fountain displays.
Yet there’s no denying certain attributes of beauty, they are apparent to both the casual acquaintance and intimate alike. An hour walking the spiral at the Guggenheim Museum always leaves me shaking my head at architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius – no matter what art is on display.
Nor can I walk past the Empire State Building and not crane my neck and marvel. It took less than one year at the height of the Great Depression to create what was then the tallest building in the world.
Then there’s the ever-growing farmers’ market that transforms Union Square from an impersonal, chaotic crossroads into a swarming, global, local village several times a week.
And the only thing better than a new flame is the fresh thrill of discovery in an old love. I thought I knew all about the staid and buttoned down Upper East Side of Manhattan, until I discover the rooftop bat at The Surry, a posh uptown hotel with a downtown sense of chic, just off Madison Avenue. And just recently a friend led me uptown to Harlem, to the Red Rooster on Lenox Avenue, not far from the famous Apollo Theater, and the corn bread literally melted in my mouth.
Then there was the day I stumbled upon Ireland in downtown Manhattan. Just off the Hudson River, the Irish Hunger Memorial is a nation in microcosm, with stones from all 32 counties, the remnants of a cottage from Carradoogan in Mayo, and wild and rolling turf. It’s a haunting, evocative tribute to the three million who died in the famine – surrounded by the soaring buildings of the densely packed Battery Park City.
When the crush of humanity is finally too much, a walk through Central Park on a fine day is both a respite from the city’s throb and a distinctly New York experience. Since my recent move uptown, my discovery of the often-deserted North and East Meadows in the park’s upper reaches have me falling in love anew with the ultimate urban green space.
As with all long-term relationships, over the years things are said that one doesn’t mean, and I’ve occasionally threatened to leave. But then I wonder where I would go. There’s nowhere like New York in America – there is nowhere like it in the world. It’s a singular place that welcomes us all with its brashness. Come – the stark and sentimental skyline seems to beckon – reinvent yourself here, make of yourself what you can, others before you have done the same, but no one exactly like you; your relationship with the greatest city on earth is like none other.