Notes from a brief stay in New York

2024-04-16  Travel and Leisure

I’m used to big cities. I’ve lived in London for more than a decade and have spent time in various European capitals, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas, and Austin. But as Manhattan emerged over the horizon on the cab ride from JFK Airport, I realised that none of these had prepared me for New York City, where the endless looming towers made each street feel as enclosed as the Midtown Tunnel.

While New York has a heavy media presence - Friends, Seinfeld, Annie Hall, Ghostbusters, and so on - my strongest impression of the city came from its gritty representation in Grand Theft Auto IV. Liberty City seemed an impossible feat in 2008, and served as a kind of virtual tourist experience to escape the confines of my hometown. But returning to it after I got home, it was as though its scale had shrunk significantly while I was away, and it felt more game-like than ever before.

The reason for this is that real-life Manhattan is not only bigger than I expected vertically, but also has a gigantic footprint. On my first full day, I decided to walk from where I was staying in the Financial District up to Central Park via various landmarks - what turned out to be nearly five miles through bustling, diverse districts that at once felt very similar to London and unmistakably foreign. Despite capturing the vibe well, Rockstar’s approximation feels like a small village by comparison.

Safe but unsanitised

As an outsider looking through the lens of social media, I’d picked up a history of New York that painted it as a very rough place in the late 20th century that was cleaned up and is now the domain of tourists and the rich. While that was the case for the most popular parts (as it is in London), my travels took me through quieter areas filled with boutique shops (East Village), peaceful parks and walkways looking out on some fantastic views, and parts of Chinatown where the roads were half-resurfaced and the tattiness made it feel like I had leapt back a few decades.

If you believe Twitter, New York - and especially the subway - still has something of a reputation for violence, but I never felt threatened despite my strolls being long and largely directionless. If you look like you have somewhere to be and you’re not walking around wearing an “I ♡ NY” T-shirt with a huge map in your hands, it’s unlikely that anyone will bother you. While I did have to be selective about where I sat in some carriages from time to time, I was never particularly worried.

I also found the stereotype of New Yorkers as impatient, crass people was off the mark. Again, I had no bad experiences, and the interactions I had and observed placed the locals at a happy midpoint between Londoners’ complete avoidance of any form of eye contact and the overwhelming cheerfulness sometimes encountered in places like Texas. Perhaps those who consider them rude aren’t used to such large places, where it’s impossible to fully acknowledge every passer by.

Scraping the surface

One area where New York surpasses even London is how much choice there is in such a small space, especially when it comes to food. Whatever tickles your fancy - pizza, Italian, sushi, Korean barbecue… - you’ll probably never need to travel more than a few subway stops, and once you get there you’re quite likely to encounter a whole cluster of similar restaurants over just a street or two. At one place, I even happened to stumble upon quite possibly the best lasagne I’ve ever had (that was Adrienne’s Pizzabar in Lower Manhattan, in case anyone wants to go looking).

Even away from the tourist attractions and restaurants, New York is simply a very interesting city to observe. On one morning I was waiting for a rain shower to pass. I took a window seat at a Starbucks on a street corner, and there was just so much going on to watch. From the locals walking their dogs, to the NYPD cars filing round the corner, to the peaks of the skyscrapers in the distance, any way you look there’s something worth your time and a potential story to decipher.

In all likelihood I’m probably romanticising New York - I was there for all of three days, after all, and tourists’ views on London are usually very different to my own as a resident - but even if I can only speak from a visitor’s perspective, I think it may be the best city break I’ve ever had. I left with the impression that there was much more to uncover that I hadn’t touched even on my extensive wanderings, and I very much hope I have the opportunity to go back one day and see more.

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