On a clear morning, standing in mid-town Manhattan with the avenue, sparkling in brilliant sunlight and stretching canyon-like to seeming infinity, a sense of exhilaration is irresistible. The heart of one of the world’s greatest cities beats, honks, chatters and bustles in every direction.
Moving downtown to Chelsea or the Villages, quieter cross streets boast older buildings with traditional, external fire escapes tumbling towards the streets. Restaurants, cafes, coffee shops and bars are crammed with locals and visitors attracted to New York by its culture, energy and employment opportunities.
Traditional spaces, like Central Park, provide recreational opportunities, while modern creations, such as the High Line, a park developed on a stretch of what once had been an elevated railway, testify to the city’s creative energy.
For visitors and culture vultures there is a wealth of museums, theatres, a great opera house and outstanding dance companies. There’s a lot to like. But there are a few things that require attention.
First and notoriously, there is JFK Airport. Vice President Joe Biden is on record accusing New York’s La Guardia airport of being of third world quality. The same can be said of JFK, except that third world is a loose term and such comparisons can be inaccurate. JFK could perhaps be checked against Bangladesh but the airports in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are everything modern airports should be and JFK is not.
In the city the subway is a disgrace: filthy and manifestly underfunded. Escalators and elevators are as rare as an oasis in the desert. On the trains – air conditioned, their redeeming feature – notices vainly urge passengers to avoid dumping trash on the tracks, warning that the frequent fires they cause delay thousands of trains each year. And if you do decide in a spirit of adventure to take the subway to JFK, the slow elevator that connects to the elevated train for the final stretch of the journey to the airport is as likely as not to stink of urine.
On the streets of Manhattan, or at least as far north as 86th, you can rent a Citi bike, which is a splendid way to view New York. It also gives a direct and uncomfortable experience of the potholes and poor surfaces of the city’s inadequately maintained roads.
And then there is the food. You can eat well in New York: we were introduced to a decent Italian restaurant, but mostly it is bland, served in vast portions. Even the fresh seafood in Chelsea Market did not taste of much. We ate instead in China Town and particularly enjoyed Xian, on Bayard Street, a simple restaurant – a long wooden table, a narrow counter top, 20 people seated at most – that serves splendid food, especially so if you love chili.
All cities have their rough corners and edges. But it is extraordinary that one of the richest cities in the richest countries in the world is unable to sort out its basic infrastructure. Perhaps they need help. As an American friend suggested to me, half-jokingly, many years ago, there is nothing wrong with the place that one million Chinese could not fix.