by Crikey reader Kristin Moore

Central ParkLife gets in the way of your plans doesn’t it? Twenty years ago I spent three weeks in New York City with my best mate, cat-sitting in a tiny apartment.

We were living in London at the time and Manhattan was like a brilliant, edgy jolt of electricity after the stodgy, stark misery of winter in Thatcher’s Britain. It was freezing and snowy, we ate Christmas lunch at the top of the World Trade Centre, went to warehouse parties, after hours clubs, jazz and punk basement gigs, met countless neophyte script writers/directors/actors, hardly slept and of course vowed to go back and live there.

Looking at photos and movies from the 80s, I’m surprised now to see how dangerous, dirty and scary Manhattan was then. I remember the burnt out cars and tenements, the no go areas and the filthy subway but my memories are overwhelmingly of energy, excitement, creativity and 24 hours a day of living life to the full.

Needless to say I never lived in NY, I came back to Sydney, had a child and got on with life; but it has stayed in the back of my mind as the place my alternate self was living in a loft with a brilliant and fabulous career. It’s a big burden to place on a city — even one as big as the Big Apple, so when I decided on a whim to snap up cheap airfares and take my music-mad, drum playing, 15 year old son to visit a long lost friend and her son in Brooklyn, I was curious and more than a bit nervous.

NY has changed enormously and sometimes beyond recognition. Brooklyn is now apparently the hippest place in the world and Avenues A through C are expensive and beautifully restored real estate.

Washington Square buskers
Washington Square buskers

Washington Square is home to buskers and uni students instead of drug dealers; and parks like Tompkins Square — where there had been a riot the year we visited — are now welcoming oases of tulips, shady trees, playgrounds, dog runs and soft grass.

Even many of the ‘projects’ — those tall red blocks of public housing — have been privatised and occupied by the upwardly mobile, while the poor and the welfare recipients have been pushed way out into the outer boroughs or a few remaining pockets in Manhattan. Everywhere, including the subway, is clean and safe-feeling, idiosyncratic community gardens and plantings soften the urban landscape and everyone seems to have a dog.

Although the grittiness has gone, the creativity remains; and street art, a wonderful feature of the old New York, is still everywhere — from expensive looking modern installations to graffiti, murals and sculptures built from junk or old bicycle frames on the footpath.

Despite the oft-claimed success of ‘zero tolerance policing’, I suspect these changes are in fact more a triumph of moving and burying problems, rather than solving them. Like most other Western cities, the move of the cashed-up into areas that once belonged to the marginalised is proceeding apace. We saw few homeless people (although we did accompany our hosts to volunteer making food for the homeless, so they must exist) and no crimes happening, although there was a huge police presence and the morning news was full of shootings and bashings, mainly in Jersey and Queens.

Having made an impulsive ticket purchase which left little time to save, we had a ridiculously small budget. Here’s the surprise news, New York is cheap, a lot cheaper than Sydney. We had a brilliant time on very little money, coming home with $5 left in the kitty. We didn’t do Broadway, we didn’t buy much apart from some jeans, sweatshirts and vinyl records and we didn’t eat in expensive restaurants, but we certainly didn’t feel as though we were missing out on the best New York had to offer.

New York is definitely a walking city and spring is the perfect time to visit; the streets glow with blossom and window boxes and pots are filled with bright flowers, we spent an entire day in Central Park — surely one of the world’s greatest public parks. The new Highline park in Chelsea is a great addition to the city and the almost completed Brooklyn waterfront park along the East River is a beautiful spot filled with families. As you walk, you notice a wealth of detail, small sculptures and pieces of art on the streets, doorways decorated with mosaic or elaborate doors and tiny patches of garden. Looking upwards rewards you with glimpses of beautiful vignettes and incredibly ornate buildings amongst the skyscrapers and the Gotham City architecture still brings you to a standstill: Grand Central, the Chrysler building, the Dakota and the Manhattan skyline are as iconic as ever and new additions from some of the great architects are stunning.

Highline Park
Highline Park

Walking in the sunshine tends to make you hungry and fortunately there was no need for self-catering frugality.

Le Taza De Oro, Puerto Rican diner
Le Taza De Oro, Puerto Rican diner

We ate incredibly well and almost continuously: Puerto Rican, Ukrainian, juicy burgers, huge pizza slices, sandwiches 5 inches thick stuffed with hot spicy pastrami or chicken salad and served with a pickle. We ate in iconic places unchanged for generations – Katz’s, Eisenbergs, Johns Pizza on Bleeker St, Amy Ruth’s in Harlem. We cruised hipster cafes in Williamsburg and Red Hook in Brooklyn and searched in vain for a decent cup of coffee.

We also heard a lot of incredibly good music, paying at most $20 to listen to cutting edge jazz at the tiny Smalls in Greenwich Village. Cosy little bars in Brooklyn and Manhattan squish musicians and punters in cheek by jowl until the wee hours and we sampled everything from French guitarists to Serbian brass gypsy music and of course jazz of all kinds ––world class musicians playing for tip jar money or competing in high pressure jam sessions.

New York is also the home of stand up comedy and although the big comedy clubs are upwards of US$30 to enter, a mere US$5 a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre put us a metre from performers like Scott Adsit from 30 Rock, Dave Hill and the writers of the Colbert Report firing out improvisational comedy that had us rolling on the floor.

Every day and night there is a bewildering choice of things artistic or cultural to see or participate in — most free or at very little cost. It takes a minimum of research to find once in a lifetime opportunities and native New Yorkers really know how to make the best of everything on offer.

Galleries and museums range from MOMA to tiny shopfronts and basements; and many cafes, bars and shops host book, poetry or play readings, discussion nights and writer’s groups. We walked into a free poetry reading one evening at the New School to hear no less than two Pulitzer prize winners and one Poet Laureate read their own work.

Despite their claims to be rude and obnoxious, New Yorkers are some of the friendliest people I have ever met, and this was as true 20 years ago as it is now. Wherever you go, whether you’re in a diner a bar or hanging at the street basketball courts, people are curious and up for a chat, sometimes to the point of holding you hostage. Hanging out and watching, talking to and listening to New Yorkers was our favourite way to spend time. It’s a city where people hold opinions and have perfected the art of the argument; a city which respects its intellectuals and artists as well as worships its sporting teams; and it is this diversity, dynamism and balance which made me fall in love with it 20 years ago and which is unchanged today.

Has all the gentrification and ‘cleansing’ robbed New York of something? It’s certainly a prettier place to be now, less exciting perhaps and certainly a lot less edgy, but definitely as bursting with creativity, art and music. Some New Yorkers miss the bad old days, most are happy with the changes and many are too young to remember. Returning as a mother rather than a 20-something wanting to live life on the edge means that comparisons are meaningless, what is certain though is that New York has given me exactly what I wanted each time I have visited — and perhaps that is the mark of a truly great city.