How the Big Apple lost its bite

    28 March 2015

    When Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie, moved to New York from smalltown New Jersey in the late 1960s, you could live in the city for next to nothing.

    These days, Harry says, Blondie could never have got off the ground. There’s just no way a broke musician could afford to survive in Manhattan, let alone support a decent heroin habit.

    One by one the old boho-cheapo quarters of town have become a mixture of hyper-expensive residential and retail. Blondie’s haunts — from the Bowery to Hell’s Kitchen — are now an achingly cool combination of high-end apartments and shops. Little Italy has lost most of its Italians. The Chelsea Hotel — where Dylan Thomas spent his last night and Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen — is now smart apartments. The Meatpacking District in the West Village still has a few meat trucks rumbling around, but it’s only a matter of time. There’s a Helmut Lang outlet opposite the Louis Zucker and Co Pork and Beef Products warehouse — I know which one’s going to survive.

    And now it’s the turn of Times Square. A combination of Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, Times Square has long been a vision of commercialised hell — illuminated 24/7 with 50ft high H&M ads, populated by desperate chancers dressed up as Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, shaking tourists down for a few bucks.

    What chutzpah to reopen the Knickerbocker Hotel at the tourist crossroads of New York, where Times Square collides with Broadway and 42nd Street. The Knickerbocker was built in 1906 by John Jacob Astor to cater to the beau monde of Gilded Age New York. Enrico Caruso lived in a suite there for years. The hotel barman was said to have invented a mindblowing cocktail in the Knickerbocker one night. An Italian barman — went by the name of Martini.

    Astor went down on the Titanic and the Knickerbocker’s fortunes dived with the trashification of Times Square. The hotel closed in 1921, to become a series of dowdy offices for the next 94 years.

    Times Square, no longer such a scary place
    Times Square, no longer such a scary place

    Today, the Knickerbocker retains its charming, classical Edwardian facade. Inside, it has been given all the marks of the supersleek, minimalist modern hotel: a pale stone lobby; bedroom decor of smoked glass and 50 restrained shades of grey; extremely attentive staff who could moonlight as supermodels.

    The look is 21st-century Mad Men, and it couldn’t be further from the sound and fury just beyond the windows — which are double-glazed and fitted with blackout blinds to keep the tourist tat at bay. In the dining room the blinds are lifted, giving views onto random sections of those vast, illuminated ads. The effect — like some surrealist installation — is not for everyone. I’m as fogeyish as they come, but I rather liked it — particularly when they played Blondie’s ‘In the Flesh’ in the restaurant: a blast of old, poor New York.

    Where the tourists scarf McDonald’s on the street, the account executives in the Knickerbocker’s restaurant sip martinis and peck at oysters and line-caught halibut from New England. Outside, on the roof terrace, the funereally dressed fashionistas perch, Batman-like, on the edge of the parapet — protected by J.J. Astor’s twirling copper balustrade — and gaze west down 42nd Street to the sun setting over Gotham City.

    Twenty-five years ago, when I first came to New York, Times Square was a frightening place to be. On my first night in the city, I saw someone being beaten to a pulp by two men: one with a baseball bat, the other with an old tennis racket in a wooden press.

    No more. The crime collapse is a modern miracle, with murders down from 2,245 in 1990 to 328 last year — the lowest since reliable records began in 1963. While I was there this February, the city went through its longest murder-free period — 12 days — in 20 years. That might have had something to do with it being the coldest spell in New York for 20 years — murderers hate the icy winds slicing in off the Hudson, too.

    The collapse in crime is the no. 1 factor behind the gentrification of New York. The retail trade has exploded in New York: from the Marc Jacobs shops in Greenwich Village to the huge Gap on Times Square. The coffee shops and tartan-shirted hipsters with silly beards now feel safe enough to spread north into Harlem and east into the old industrial areas of Brooklyn.

    Last year, Spike Lee caused an almighty hoo-ha when he attacked the white middle-classes — ‘the motherf——s’, as he called them — for colonising his childhood stamping ground of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He was particularly incensed at them telling black, long-time residents not to play their drums in Mount Morris Park in Harlem.

    the Knickerbocker Hotel
    the Knickerbocker Hotel

    But then the tribes of New York have always been on the move. The Bronx used to be heavily Jewish; the Greek population of Astoria in Queens is in decline. And we really should thank our lucky stars that the whole place is getting safer. A generation ago, bankrupt, broken New York was on the edge of the precipice. In 1975, the city nearly went bust after President Ford initially refused to bail it out — thus the Daily News headline, ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’. In 1977 a 25-hour blackout hit the city, leading to widespread looting and vandalism and more than 3,000 arrests. Who wants that?

    Well, it turns out, quite a few old bohemians want precisely that. I once met a multimillionaire designer who talked wistfully of those days. On his first morning in his SoHo brownstone in the 1970s, he woke to find a drug dealer beating to death another drug dealer with a dustbin lid. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!

    Nostalgie de la boue has its pitfalls. But my nostalgic millionaire friend had a point. New York is a lot safer, but a lot more boring. Manhattan hasn’t just gentrified. It has also got a lot more hard–working — in all classes. Gone are the leisured elite of Gilded Age New York. The grand Dutch New Yorkers of Edith Wharton and Henry James may have done a bit of mild stockbroking — but they devoted themselves to art and literature, too. The Edwardian manufacturing tycoons, like Henry Clay Frick of the Frick Collection, turned their coal and steel fortunes into Holbeins and Goyas.

    Their gazillionaire equivalents today — the hedgefunders and the bankers — are working too hard to become aesthetes. Gone is the two-martini lunch; gone the cocktail on the evening train to Connecticut. Funny how the moment bankers stopped drinking and started working harder, the global financial system collapsed.

    The Manhattan middle classes are also working much too hard to have fun. Rent is so high that they have no other choice. University graduates are living like the Corleones when they came to the Lower East Side from Sicily a century ago. They bunk three to a room to meet the rent on a tiny apartment in Battery Park City.

    As for the poor of New York, they never stop. That exceptional service culture — the dry-cleaning done in a few hours; the sushi delivered instantly to your doorman; the venti, triple-shot, non-fat, sugar-free, cinnamon latte, with whip — depends on a growing army of worker ants, slaving flat out at the minimum wage. Some poor New Yorkers still live in Harlem; but fewer and fewer of them.

    Manhattan was always going to run out of room for anyone but the rich. As I flew out of JFK, I got a glimpse of Manhattan: a tiny speck of an island, surrounded by the spreading seas of the suburbs.

    That island is just too small to accommodate the growing numbers of the world’s rich and still maintain a critical mass of engaging, middle-class residents — let alone broke, aspirant pop singers.