Sleepless in the Apple: New York City

From coffee, jazz, theatre and shopping to West Indian cuisine, New York has it all. Eugene Patron takes a look at what is on offer

  • New York landmarks: skyline. Photograph by New York State Economic Development
  • Apollo Theatre. Photograph by NYCVB
  • Produce from Chinatown. Photograph by NYS Commerce Department
  • Guggenheim Museum. Photograph by New York State Commerce Department
  • Lincoln Centre. Photograph by New York State Commerce Department

New Yorkers should be the last people on earth to need an extra cup of coffee. This is the City That Never Sleeps, where you can “revel without a pause,” its energies realised in soaring concrete, impeccable style and a cocky attitude. So it must be the hundreds of Seattle-style coffee houses that have sprung up around the city these last few years that account for those sudden bursts of extra energy in the Big Apple.

Jazz musicians, comparing their circuit to an apple tree with many branches, first named New York the Big Apple: the biggest gig of them all. The challenge of the venue, of making it one’s own, still draws people by the thousand, each willing to dream of making it on Broadway, becoming a captain of industry or a literary lion.

But for the visitor, the thrill is not just the famous skyscrapers, neighbourhoods, museums, shops and restaurants. It’s the buzz of a city forever making itself bigger, better and more appealing.

Fittingly, nowhere is the passion for “making it new” more evident than Times Square and 42nd Street, the “Crossroads of the Universe.” The porn theatres and sex shops which proliferated there (the backdrop to popular 70s TV police shows like Kojak and Columbo) are now all but gone. Pickpockets may abound, but serious crime has plummeted.

Instead, new theatres, mega-theme restaurants and shops, cyber-age entertainment complexes and the offices of high- powered media companies have brought an excitement which makes even the 15 million locals who traverse Times Square each day stop and stare.

Fifty-plus super-signs — including the signature Sony Jumbotron video screen and the famous Coca-Cola sign — light up the square at night in an electric blaze of brand names and beckoning theatre marquees.

For an intense and up-close taste of the action, go to XS New York a three-storey “Cybertainment Complex” in the heart of Times Square. Businessmen in suits and ties, teenagers and whole families pit their skills against each other here, in dozens of virtual reality machines, computer games and internet access stations. The place is filled with music, lights and sounds as “cyberhosts” guide the crowd on a journey through cyberspace.

Those who fear that this brave new world of high tech will finish off live Broadway theatre can take heart in the decision of the Disney Corporation to make the renovation of the historic New Amsterdam theatre on 42nd Street its signature New York project. Painstakingly restored to its early 20th-century glory, the theatre will become the home for stage versions of loved Disney musicals and other performances.

Nor have New Yorkers abandoned their taste for post-theatre intellectual banter and late-night suppers. The venerable Algonquin Hotel where Dorothy Parker and the founding scribes of The New Yorker held court, still welcomes the theatre and literary set in its comfortable Victorian setting. Across the street, the fashion crowd natters over champagne in the rectangular lobby lounge of the ultra-chic Royalton Hotel whose striking Phillipe Starck layout turns up in glossy design magazines all over the globe.

In almost any other city in the world, the rejuvenation of Times Square would be enough to cluck about. But in New York it’s just the icing on the cake. All the way downtown there is change, right down to the canyons of Wall Street.

As the first generation of skyscrapers reaches its centennial the question of what to do with these towers, whose graceful shape but narrow floor space makes them unsuitable for the needs of large corporations, is being asked. One answer which some pioneering developers are betting on, is to turn them into apartments, artists’ lofts and studio space for the budding multi media companies which have earned New York the nickname of “Silicon Alley.”

Already, tens of thousands of office workers and tourists flock to the bars, restaurants and shops of the historic South Street Seaport nearby, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge on the East River. A few minutes’ walk across the narrow width of lower Manhattan island, from the East River to the Hudson, Battery Park City is one of the most successful and appealing models of urban planning. Bunt on landfill from the massive foundation dug for the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, it is an oasis of apartments, waterfront paths and small green parks and cafés along the river.

In warm weather the waterfront atrium (in front of the soaring Winter Garden atrium) is used for open-air performances. In scale to the backdrop of the lower Manhattan skyline, the marina at the foot of the plaza showcases yachts which can easily be mistaken for small cruise ships.

With the towering buildings of Wall Street symbolising New York’s economic might, you could be forgiven for thinking that Harlem at the other end of Manhattan symbolises the poverty that afflicts many New Yorkers.

Not so. Like many areas of New York, you can turn a corner in Harlem and go from the chilling reality of urban decay to beautiful restored brownstones whose residents — of all races – are a close-knit community of doctors, artists, lawyers and educators. 125th Street, the heart of black Harlem, has itself turned a corner. New stores offer anything from African- inspired fabrics to the latest videos and there are fast food stores with menus from burgers to roti. Nearby, street vendors, many from West Africa, improvise outdoor markets in empty lots and hawk CDs, watches and small African carvings.

Two perennial Harlem favourites are Wednesday night (amateur night) at the legendary Apollo Theatre and Sunday morning gospel music services at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Definitely worth a visit are the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, which houses the country’s largest collection of materials on African- American culture. Sylvia’s the high temple of Soul Food, is always bustling, and the Lenox Lounge Bar is little changed from the days when Malcolm X was a regular.

New York’s African-American neighborhoods have traditionally opened their arms to the city’s more progressive, arty set as during the heady days of the Harlem renaissance in the 1920s.

It’s not surprising, then, that Greenwich Village, New York’s Bohemian epicentre was in the early 19th century one of the city’s first black neighbourhoods. Today, Greenwich Village is defined not so much by the race of those who live and congregate there as by the off-beat live-and-let-live tolerance which prevails along its winding streets.

The Village is actually two Villages: East and West, divided by Broadway. It extends from 14th Street down past Washington Square Park, the area’s open-air living room, to Houston Street. The West Village’s beautiful tree-lined streets shade charming brick buildings and countless cafés, jazz clubs, ethnic food shops and boutiques. Christopher Street is the center of gay New York and home to some of the best piano bars in town, which welcome people of all persuasions.

The West Village has grown up a bit and lost some of its Bohemian edge, but biting counter-culture is alive and well in the East Village. Much of the area’s youthful energy comes from the thousands of students attending New York University and the Cooper Union School. Loud music, loud clothes shocking art and an around-the-clock carnival atmosphere on the street have long made the East Village home to the city’s avantgarde. Visitors will quickly find, however, that the East Village’s bark is worse than its bite, and taking in the action from a St Mark’s Place café is as much a New York experience as is visiting Rockefeller Centre.

In fact locals bemoan the fact that the East Village is changing too fast, pointing to a huge new K-Mart store which; opened last year on Astor Place. While looking no different from the thousands of K-Marts in suburban shopping malls across the US, the young couple with blue hair and nose rings pushing a stroller down the baby clothing aisle makes this a decidedly New York shopping experience.

Manhattan itself has enough “must see” sites shops, restaurants, theatres and museums to fill a year’s visit to New York. But it would be a shame not to venture at least once into one of New York’s other four boroughs. And none probably has the same name recognition and deserved fame as Brooklyn.

Not far from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, known for its innovative performances, is Fort Greene, Brooklyn’s own version of Greenwich Village. Film director Spike Lee is the de-facto mayor here, as well as proprietor of Spike’s Joint, a shop selling souvenirs from his films. A few blocks south-west towards Manhattan is Atlantic Avenue, home to numerous Middle Eastern shops and cafés. And right on the river, with a postcard- perfect view of Manhattan, is the Brooklyn Heights promenade.

With 40,000 people from the Caribbean, it’s likely that many visitors to New York from the islands will already have plans to visit the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. Those missing curried chicken, coconut bread and the juicy fruits of home will find them all, in great concentration, for about six blocks up and down Flatbush Avenue in the vicinity of Church Street. With soca on the stereo and home cooking spicing the air, you can almost imagine yourself back home. Except for the snowdrifts of a New York winter …