I don’t like cities, but I like New York

Actually, that title is a lie. I like cities. But that’s a line from a Madonna song (entitled “New York”). I used to think it was kind of arbitrary, but looking back on the last week, I’m now fully willing to agree that New York is unlike any other city I’ve ever been to, and quite possibly unique.

Again, I’m speaking about Manhattan here, and Midtown in particular, since that’s where we spent our time. The neighbourhood is pretty incredible: where else can you regularly find neighbours like a dilapidated sewing machine repair shop right across the street from an upscale nightclub? It’s incredible how much…stuff…is packed into a small area in Manhattan.

It’s pretty easy to see what makes this area what it is. Every building is retail on the bottom, and several stories of offices or apartments on top. This means that there’s a large population in the neighbourhood 24 hours a day – people work in the offices by day, live in the apartments by night, and shop and go to restaurants all the time. If you want a coffee, or a bite to eat, or a new shirt, or a newspaper, or just about anything else, pick a direction and start walking. Within two or three minutes, you’ll probably find what you need.

Life in Manhattan is lived on the street. Very few people drive, if for no other reason than that there’s nowhere to park. Real estate is tight, so there are no big parking lots…and land is expensive, so the parking lots that do exist are pricey. (We saw parking as expensive as $15 for a half hour.) So you take a cab, or a train, or you walk. After all, everything’s nearby.

So much of what we saw brought to mind movies or TV shows. You know how in a movie, a guy needs a paper, so he buys one from the guy that’s conveniently got a news stand set up on the sidewalk? That’s New York. Those scenes of someone waving a hand in the air and getting in a taxi within ten seconds, going a few blocks, and passing a few bills to the cabbie? New York. People leaving their office and walking through the park, where people are reading on the benches and ignoring the pigeons? New York. Almost anything that looks like a generic “big city”, and seems a little unreal (too many people, too many cars, too convenient) is probably based on New York.

New York is a city you experience with all your senses. Visually, it’s overwhelming. You know how New Yorkers are famous for being unflappable? It’s because you can’t walk around being amazed by everything you see, or you won’t make it two blocks. Besides, all those people mean that you’re likely to run into a couple weirdos. Someone started shouting on the subway all of a sudden – something about “the truth” and “medicinal marijuana” – and then fell silent again, and was completely ignored. At least three or four people tried to convince me that all the Biblical prophecies were being fulfilled, and the end was near. (Who knows, maybe they were right. I didn’t take their pamphlets. Get that many thousand people in one place, and you have to expect a few wackos.

All those people mean that it’s noisy, too. There are the cars, and the honking (not as bad as it’s often shown on TV, though that may be because of the recent-looking signs threatening a $350 fine for honking). There are the people – the pedestrians talking, the hawkers trying to get you into their restaurant. There’s the roar of the subway underfoot. The occasional siren.

New York is also a city you taste: it’s a city of food. There’s the occasional hot dog vendor, but more importantly, there are restaurants. For the most part, these aren’t big chain restaurants either, but little one-off joints. We ate at “Waldy’s Wood-Fired Pizza” one night, and it’s pretty representative of the places you see. And they’re everywhere: look at what we got when we searched for restaurants near our hotel. I’m notoriously picky about food, and even I would say that if you visit NYC and don’t taste something new, you’re doing it wrong.

And unfortunately, with all those people, New York is a city of smell. Some good smells: the restaurants, the hot dog vendors. Surprising little “pollution” smell, because there’s not a crazy amount of traffic. But…there are no back lanes. So there’s nowhere to put garbage bins. So those sidewalks that everyone spends all their time on? They’re also the place that all the garbage bags get tossed. You catch whiffs of a dozen different smells while walking a block, and they’re not all pleasant.

Overall, Manhattan is unlike any place I’ve ever visited. And I like it. It’s impossible to feel out of place, in part because there are a lot of tourists, but also because there are so many different types of people walking around, there’s no single culture to make you feel like an outsider. It’s also surprisingly difficult to get lost: most of Manhattan is covered in a very straightforward grid road system, with numbered streets and avenues. And it’s ridiculously easy to get around: if all else fails, jump in a cab and tell him where you want to go.

Final verdict: Worth visiting. But you have to be willing to walk, and you have to be able to deal with lots and lots of people, an assault on your senses, and breaking out of the “hotel and car” style of vacation. If you can survive that – better yet, if you enjoy that – you’ll like it in Manhattan.

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Posted on September 11, 2010, in travel. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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