So I’ve spent the last four days in New York, one of the world’s great cities. So what do I make of it?

I was staying with a friend who works at New York University and lives in a university flat on West 3rd Street / Mercer Street in Greenwich Village – so I was right in the middle of Manhattan. This meant that most things were within reach by foot, so I basically spent 4 days walking around.

The first thing to note is that New York is an assault on the senses in all ways. There’s a constant hum to the city wherever you are and even on the 9th floor of a building the rumble of the subway through the grilles on the street outside is an ever present. Everywhere is always too noisy – people talk loudly, cafés play music loudly, trucks honk their horns loudly. This all adds up to a certain vitality to the city but it’s draining too.
Visually the city is stunning and interesting in so many regards. You’re walking across a crossroads only to notice the Empire State Builiding many blocks ahead but with a view unrestricted due to the grid layout (which also makes New York fantastically easy to navigate – above ground at least).

At street level the city is a feast for the senses as well, with the whole atmosphere changing within the space of a couple of blocks – from Chinese supermarkets to designer clothing and organic cafés in Lower East Side for example. There’s always something to catch your eye wherever you are in Manhattan.

Heat and humidity are the major downsides of New York in July – the temperature (even overnight) rarely dropped below 25º when I was there. I’m fine with warm temperatures but couple that with high humidity and the city really saps your energy.  The city was so hazy during my stay that I did not ascend the Empire State Building – it would have been impossible to see even beyond the island of Manhattan.

To cope with the heat and humidity every building is air-conditioned, but no one seems to care where the out-pipe of their air conditioner is placed. So walking along the street you get zonked with blasts of heat being pumped out of shops. The subway is little better – the trains are air-conditioned (to the point of being too cold!) but all the heat ends up in the stations that, low-roofed and chaotic, make London Underground look positively pleasant.

In terms of smells New York is not too bad – the gyros and hamburgers cooking on street stalls seem rather out of place in midsummer, and different cooking smells accompany entry into the different quarters. Considering the huge numbers of people walking dogs around Greenwich Village the city struck me as rather dog-poo free.

Other than that, what did I spend my time doing? I walked along the Hudson, past Ground Zero, across Brooklyn Bridge and around Brooklyn Heights, in Manhattan along 5th Avenue (and to the Apple Store), around Central Park, to the UN headquarters, through East Side and Soho (not all at once). I skated half the length of Manhattan along the Hudson from Houston Street to 100th Street and back again.

I spent a pleasant afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and an even better morning at the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island (some brilliant stories, but a rather rosy picture overall), and sat reading my book while drinking bad coffee and good smoothies at cafés all over the place.

A few other observations… There are taxis everywhere, but generally the traffic is not too bad. But why do the taxis have petrol rather than diesel engines? There are signs everywhere telling you what you can and cannot do. Tattoos proliferate. Loads of people have small dogs. People approach you in parks and try to preach to you, and their jaws drop when you tell them you’re an atheist. NYU seems to control half of downtown Manhattan. Subway maps are dire. The place is packed with German and French tourists, and what British ones there are stand out a mile (just like anywhere else). Loads of shops have ATMs in them – why? Can’t you pay with a card in the shop? Dollars are a pain to use – all the notes look the same, and you can’t get rid of some of the coins. There are basically no places where you can eat or drink outside, and dreadfully little green space (apart from Central Park).

So, overall, what do I make of the place? First of all I would suggest visiting in spring or autumn – the heat would be easier to manage. It’s a fun and vibrant city with masses to do. But I don’t reckon I could ever live there – it’s lacking a public sphere, public places, it’s a place where business rules. So it’s excellent to visit, but overall it’s not quite my sort of place.

2 Comments

  1. Central Scrutiniser

    May or June is the best time to visit. It is hot and sunny but not too humid. Wandering around Manhattan taking in the sights is something you could probably do for the rest of your life. The number of unconscious destitute people, usually black, sleeping in church doorways shocked me though.

    I’m not sure I agree with the lack of green spaces – I found dozens of tiny parks, usually associated with churches of some kind, slotted between high rise buildings. Apparently the planning laws allow owners of empty lots or low rise buildings to sell the right to build to a certain height elsewhere in Manhattan. In this way older, low rise buildings can be preserved by liquidating the potential development yields. Now that is clever.

    I love the micro-brewery pubs and the food. The quality of the food was a very pleasant surprise.

    But why is the coffee of such so low quality?

  2. Superb article. I’m a native New Yorker (living here for the past 54 years) and run my little space in cyberspace blog called The Electric Egg Cream. You’ve expressed in one post my own love-hate relationship with this town better than I did with over 212 posts dealing with NYC. A Great Read. Thanks.

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