I first visited New York City on Wednesday, July 12, 1972. I remember this vividly because I was on a student tour of the United States, and I was neurotically nervous about what to expect.
It wasn’t that I followed the news religiously, but even as a teen-ager, I’d heard about callous New Yorkers ignoring Kitty Genovese’s screams. But I also didn’t know that New York was on the verge of bankruptcy (this was three years before the famous Daily News headline reading “Ford To City: Drop Dead”); or that the homeless would soon take over a vestibule of Grand Central Station; or that antagonists Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses were tussling over whether development was destroying the city.
I just remember that I ran into a lot of sullen, angry people. There was the woman whose foot I accidentally stepped on in a crosswalk as I was gawking at taller buildings than I’d ever seen. Even after apologizing to her, she wailed, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
There was the bellman in our hotel, the Commodore (now remodeled into the Grand Hyatt, one of Donald Trump’s first big real estate deals). Though in every other destination we carried our own luggage, the Commodore had insisted their staff deliver the bags (and get a big collective tip as well), but mine was not in my room. When I explained to the bellman that I needed my suitcase by a certain time in order to make it to the Broadway show I had tickets for, he snapped at me, “You’ll get it when you get it.”
So it was a nice surprise when I visited New York last month and realized how much the city had changed in the last few years. Whether this is all former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s doing, I don’t know (here’s New York magazine’s article on his legacy). As we approached La Guardia, we flew above a glittering nighttime Manhattan, downtown’s Freedom Tower optimistically reaching up seemingly as high as the plane. Tony, the longtime doorman at the Roosevelt, was affable and helpful.
I was there for my annual writer’s conference – the one that spawned this blog – and I spent one evening walking with friends on the High Line. The High Line was a railroad line built to serve the Lower West Side factories, but with the factories gone, the line was going to be torn down. A couple of preservationists saved it, and we ambled with other tourists one night after dinner, peering into newly built or newly converted apartment buildings. It was night in New York, but it still seemed safe.
On Saturday afternoon, I walked up Fifth Avenue to what they now call Museum Mile: the Upper East Side neighborhood graced by the Guggenheim and others. The streets were cleaner than that first summer. There were vans selling soft ice cream every few blocks. Tourists from all over the world peppered the sidewalks. I walked across Central Park toward the Museum of Natural History, and there were friends and families sitting on blankets, playing sports, laughing. Lots of laughing.
But of course, the comparison isn’t fair for many reasons. It was springtime in New York, a long-awaited spring after a horrible winter. On my first trip, it was mid-summer, when the humidity hits you like an invisible spray of warm, dingy water. And I was in midtown Manhattan, a bubble as protected from the real world as my own Silicon Valley. Perhaps if I’d gone out to Coney Island, or taken the Staten Island Ferry – as I did when I was younger – I might have met some disgruntled New Yorkers.
But no – everyone seemed remarkably … gruntled. And I couldn’t help but think that if New York of all places can undergo that kind of transformation, perhaps there’s hope for the rest of the world.