The Best and Worst of Everything: New York City, Global Province Letter, 15 September 2010

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.    ---Portia Nelson

New York’s Potholes.  No matter who’s in charge of New York City, there’s always a bunch of potholes, either in the streets or in the psyche.  For years, when we have lectured around the United States and on other continents, we’ve been at pains to put our audiences at ease.  People worry about high falutin’ consultants from New York City: our listeners feel better when we confess that New York has the best but also the worst of everything.  It has unseemly wealth and horrific poverty.  It has tall unwieldy skyscrapers and comfortable Village brownstones that better fit citizens bent on domestic tranquility. It has rivers that delight the eye, and sewers that offend the senses.  It has plenty of manics and a surplus of depressives.  In Grand Central it has a food court where fruit and cheeses and fish and flowers and meats delight the eye, but on the floor just below is a strip of fast food joints that define awful.  A ride up the East River or Roosevelt Drive at the end of the day convinces the onlooker that there’s something magic about the place.  Yet a walk down fabled Fifth Avenue, the very street where all the parades take place, tells the gimlet-eyed visitor that good ol’ New York is very, very tired, desperately in need of prolonged airbrushing.

Portia Nelson, songstress and more, was writing about life in “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk,” but she could just as well have been doing a sketch of New York.  As so many New Yorkers who hail from the heartland of the country, she worked the coasts, plying her trade in New York City and Hollywood.  A Mormon lady from Utah, she set a record for continuous appearances at the original Blue Angel Night Club.  Though she got her big start in California, she spent her last years in Gotham.  She captured its ups and downs.

A Little More Crass Lately.  At its best New York is a city of fun. But not so much, as of late. It probably is apparent that the last two mayors, Rudolph William Louis Giuliani and Michael Rubens Bloomberg, are not particularly nice guys, though they have both been effective and more or less are what the city needed. Yet they helped set the current despondent tone. They did not conquer the city’s vast traffic jams, which is probably a more important issue than crime, and education, and all the other matters about which the politicians blather.  In fact, the cabbies complain they cannot make a decent living in Manhattan, because the traffic snarls are so bad.

Oddly, serious crime continues to decline, but legal vice flourishes, tainting all the investment bankers downtown who overcharge for rather pedestrian financial services and poisoning the ether of all the copious so-called high end trendy retail establishments where the prices are high, the quality is ever declining, and the service is patchy and ill-informed.  For the first time in memory, sundry New York yeomen have become rather rude.  Despite the myth that New Yorkers are cold and hard, they had been, until the last 3 years, warm, helpful, smiling, and street smart.

For instance, we tried the latest creation of hotshot newby chef David Chang on our last romp through Manhattan.  We agree with the panoply of critics who have panned it.  Our multi-course meal was not much to rave about.  One of our guests did take home a doggie bag, literally giving the remains to his dog in Greenwich.  A surgeon in our company ordered a mojito and it did not pass inspection.  The servers were present when not wanted, and invisible when needed.   Basically they did not know the idiom or the theater of the servant.  The clutch of long tables in a banal space most reminded us of an Army dining hall. Naturally we paid a princely sum for the experience, which surely offered about as much value as “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Similarly overpriced is the new Yankee Stadium.  It’s a good enough ballpark.  But it assaults you with an endless, brazen stream of advertisements, not only an array of blinking signs but also loud videos and trash announcements over the public address system.  George Steinbrenner, the just deceased owner, and his children have lacked the classiness of Jake Ruppert and the other earlier proprietors.  This is not the park where Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio would belong. The franchise has clearly been tarnished.

Hideaways.  But then there are the hideaways which transport one into a world apart.  The secret to New York, more so than ever, is to avoid the big well-known places, and look for the gems that escape the attention of the madding crowd. 

The hideaways, lovely places, do exist.  The visitor might stop for a chat with Edward Munves, Jr., the proprietor of James Robinson, who cherishes antique silver and saw us out the door with a julep cup.

Or spend an hour at the Morgan Library which is now twice the size. Both the upcoming Lichtenstein and Degas shows promise to be a lot fun. Ironically, too, this is a great place to eat.  The café, for instance, offers a cheeseburger paired with a brew:  It is one of the few good burgers to be had in midtown, in a splendid setting no less. 

Serious restaurants that merit your attention are found at the margin, far away from the eyes of New York’s media mavens.  One should consider one of New Yorker’s older Japanese restaurants—Restaurant Nippon—which has more interesting food and a less harried ambiance than its 5th Avenue sister Soba Nippon.  Mr. Kuraoka makes his own soba and his own tofu, one of many signs that he is a serious restaurateur.  Incidentally, Nobuyoshi Kuraoka was the first proprietor to legally import Japanese fugu into the United States.

Da Silvano. Da Silvano, after all these many years, is still a place apart.  It’s on Sixth Avenue, just below Bleecker Street, not far from the Little Red Schoolhouse.  It was good 30 years ago, and it is great today.  We spent a few hours there with our guest on a recent afternoon.  We can remember having magnificent tripe decades ago.  This time we had veal kidney, and our guest had two pasta dishes.  We let the house pick our red wine.  Silvano Marchetto himself sat down at the table adjoining ours, also partaking of the kidney.  In fact, to our delight, he thoroughly enjoys his own food.  Everybody—customers and staff— smile a lot, not just because of the good cooking, but because the place is fun, a New York hideaway.

After a long meal with Marchetto, it is only a short walk to a charming Village neighborhood where a somewhat hidden, but attractive community thrives. Charlton Street, an historic neighborhood, is but a stroll away.  One resident, Richard Blodgett, has lovingly written of its history.  It reminds us that in volatile New York, which is in perpetual commotion, there are restful spots that store memories and preserve sanity.

New York, New York.  Even when slightly depressing mayors and rapacious financiers are in the saddle, the wonder of New York is that its musical heart never goes away.  It is after all the home of the Broadway musical, and there is also something grand and musical going on.  Even now the Killer—Jerry Lee Lewis—is being resurrected on Broadway in a show called “Million Dollar Quartet.”  Lewis himself, 75, is ever active offstage and is out with a wonderful collaborative album “Mean Old Man.”  It is the sounds in the city that make us all forget the hard knocks one can take during the grind of the day.  It is imperative for the visitor to partake of its music when in its precincts in order to understand what makes New York hum. 

There’s an endless litany of songs about New York which contribute to its nighttime phantasm, that melodic flight of spirit that makes us forget the wounds of the day.  New York at night has a magic that endures even with the resettling of so many to the suburbs. Nobody can forget Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” which makes clear to all of us that success in New York is tantamount to stardom the world over. Sinatra himself, who was part of the bridge and tunnel crowd from New Jersey, finally made it for real at New York’s Paramount on December 31, 1942.  As well, the wonderful Alicia Keys knew she had hit the zenith when she achieved “An Empire State of Mind.”

The roll of those serenading New York in song is endless. Wikipedia provides a list for those who cannot get enough of its celebration of itself.

42nd Street.  Years ago Jock Elliott, then chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, treated all his employees to a performance of 42nd Street.  It was a 1980 musical review of a 1933 movie.  “Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes and the subsequent 1933 film adaptation, it focuses on the efforts of famed dictatorial Great White Way director Julian Marsh to mount a successful stage production of a musical extravaganza at the height of the Great Depression.” (Wikipedia).  Even today that’s what New York is all about—a recurring parable about overcoming devastating odds and getting to the top of the mountain.

We imagine that’s also what Portia Nelson may have sung about as she made her way down the sidewalk.  As she said, you eventually learn to walk around the holes.  One bravely sings a song, threads through the crowd and the skyscrapers, and eventually finds a hidden charmed spot where life can flower.

P.S.  We once counselled a gubernatorial candidate in New York that the city’s number one problem was traffic.  The first priority must be to keep things moving, above all else.  Gridlock of all sorts is what can kill the city.  The problem never gets solved, principally because there is no political will to make things better. Charles Komanoff, and a host of others, have some good ideas about how to get the job done.

P.P.S.  New York has recovered from George Bush’s depression faster than most areas of the country.  Ironically this is due to the fact that the financial services industry, which is today New York City’s backbone, has come back from the brink of disaster in a hurry.  Ironically the folks who put the whole country in a wringer have felt the least pain from their misdeeds. 

P.P.P.S.  The Piano addition to the Morgan Library is rather bad and does not at all meld with the old building.  The new architects used for museum additions are a mixed lot, but a perpetual edifice complex drives museum boards to hire grandiose personalities who don’t have clear respect for a building’s surroundings.  One can read about museum architecture on the Global Province in “The Explosion of Museum Architecture.”

P.P.P.P.S.  New Yorkers who live in town have a narrow range of concerns. They want to know what movie they should see next and are very focused on food.  For instance, former Mayor Ed Koch not only goes to the flicks a lot, but also writes movie reviews.  And often enough, he’s up to Fairway on the Upper West Side to stock up on orange juice and some other foodstuffs that are not quite as easy to find downtown, now that Balducci’s on 6th is no more.  What distinguishes a New Yorker from his country cousins is that he does a fair amount of walking and he mixes it up with an awful of people, achieving a better than nodding acquaintance with a host of tradesmen.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  New York’s overwhelming strength, yet another hideaway, is its marvelous subway system.  The politicians are pulling back on its funding, when instead they should be lavishing funds on it, expanding its network and making it the only way to get around.  The subways are much worse in other cities both in the States and abroad.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  The question for New Yorkers is to understand their city’s soul and energy so well that they can re-invent it for the decades ahead.  There’s a tendency there, as everywhere in America, to keep on shoring up the institutions and practices that are long since over the hill.  New York has a lot of cash, but it must place its bets on the right line. Moreover, for New York City to thrive, a bedraggled New York State will have to be reinvigorated by focusing on infrastructure.  With the decline in the Erie Canal and the bankruptcy of several of New York’s railroads, New Yorkers often forget about their interdependence with the rest of the state.

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