I <3 NY

30 Sep

All cities are palimpsest. All cities are noisy, chaotic minglings of human bodies and human voices and the creatures who live off our filth. All cities are layers of history pressed close between aching fingers. New York is just much more in-your-face with all that. And how typical.

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Within seconds, Manhattan streets change from rather ramshackle collections of dollar stores and fast food joints to vast mansions and big brands. People who look like they wandered out of 1945 cross the street side by side with kids in sports leggings. South American immigrants sweep puddles into the storm drain so guys in suits and trench coats can cross safely on their way to Wall Street.

I love it. Love the deep, grimy brashness of the city. The energy that hums 24/7, for, as they rightly say, this is the city that never sleeps. It is a creature that huffs exhaust fumes and the weird, steel-scented gas that comes from subway vents, veins constantly fizzing with traffic. Lucky enough to visit twice this year, I find myself nodding at the ad campaign. Yes, I heart NY. More so on my return.

Across the river, things are quieter. Exiting the second Brooklyn brownstone I’ve stayed in within the last five months, I feel a little like I belong here. I can see myself on my way to hot yoga, tugging along my tiny dog that has to take fifty steps for each of mine. Maybe stopping off to grab a skinny turmeric latte with almond milk at the vegan wholefood place on the corner. Having my nanny take my three kids (Ottoline, Branwell and Marx) to toddler Spanish.

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Sure, if I had a spare ten million pounds. I’ll settle for wandering the neighbourhood from my holiday apartment and pretending these broad and tree-lined streets belong to me.

We return to a cafe we ate at last time we were over: Building on Bond. It’s your typical hipstery kind of brunch and lunch place I’d very much like to import to London. Between our table and a couple of girls my age obsessing over weddings and proposals, a slim, tanned woman takes a seat. She orders eggs and salads, no carbs. She’s soon joined by an older man in a flat cap. They have never met in real life, that’s soon clear; this is some sort of business networking. She’s showing him her book on Jewish society in New York. He must be a big shot. This is an essential New York experience, right? Eavesdropping on a publishing deal.

The hidden corners of the city start to yield their secrets. One evening we reserve for Manhattan and the pursuit of cocktail excellence. The East Village is buzzing with life even on a Sunday night. We make it to a tiny bar, standing room only, where they specialise in bitters from around the world (Amor Y Amargo – highly recommended). We follow with a Hawaiian-Japanese fusion restaurant, where I eat a mind-blowingly delicious sauerkraut and kalua pork pasta. It’s the kind of tastebud adventure that seems to spring so naturally from the confluence of cultures here.

We journey to Coney Island on the subway for a day of soaking in the atmosphere and people-watching. There are shirtless men with Latin music blaring from boomboxes, mums with gaggles of kids dragging them to the amusement park, and old Chinese men fishing from the pier. The place has a thin veneer of respectability that we imagine vanishes when the sun goes down, and the ghosts of sideshow freaks and moustachioed pimps climb out of the shadows.

Another surprise: the mile long festival of San Gennaro stretching from the Lower East Side nearly to the Village. Stalls of cannoli as far as the eye can see. Arancini. Lasagne. Corn dogs. ‘Mozzarepas’, another brilliant cultural fusion. Again, it’s not hard to see the history just below the surface. At the Tenement Museum we hear the stories of the immigrants who built these communities. There is a common theme of surviving against the odds, of making it work in the city despite the challenges it presents. A hundred cannoli stands seem like a celebration in the face of that. A very New York eff you to hardship.

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And the reason we came, my second family wedding of the year, sits comfortably in this narrative too. It’s in Jersey City, right across the water from Manhattan – and just a short distance from Ellis Island, where my own grandfather entered the US in the early 20s. His life was tough, to say the least. That we are here, enjoying this wonderful evening, sated with food and drink, well-dressed, dancing under the glittering skyline, is a (sort of) New York miracle.

Time condenses. Softens. On the other side of the river, the city’s monstrous heart throbs and thrums to the beat of eight million songs. Listen carefully. The voices of the past are singing too.

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