My first trip to New York was in 1989. It was a vastly different place to what it is today (pre-covid).
I stayed in a small hotel, just off of Times Square on West 47th Street.
My fascination with the city started as a child, looking through the postcards that my father had collected and sent home to his mother, from his travels in the Merchant Navy. He would tell me of some of his experiences on the ships, but my imagination switched on when he spoke of New York.
I don’t think that he ever got a chance to explore the city, as he spoke mostly about the bars near the docks. He spoke of his friends and the fights that broke out. No doubt, back then, there were not so many guns around.
The first glimpse of the distant skyscrapers from the bus was amazing, but nothing compared to the experience of standing in Times Square or walking down Fifth Avenue. Memories of those first few days will always be with me.
With my body clock on UK time, I was up and dressed by 5am and walking down Broadway.
What a disappointment. The city that never sleeps was in a coma. Apart from a couple of rough sleepers and a few people going to work, it was dead. The only place open was the McDonalds.
There was no Bubba Gumps, M&M, Disney etc. Just a few unbranded clothing stores, cafes, and a huge Virgin Record Store.
On the first morning I walked down to 42nd Street, with the song lyrics bouncing in my head, only to find shabby buildings closed and shuttered. By late evening the strip booths, adult cinemas and magazine stores opened, with touts on the sidewalk attempting to lure in punters.
One year I stayed a couple of nights in a dreadful hotel on 8th Avenue, where the strippers would hang out in the doorway. The bus depot at Penn Station was a scary place to walk past after dark, with a lot of strange looking people hanging around.
After a few years I learned where some nice restaurants were, certainly not near Times Square.
Returning every year, I would notice new buildings appearing, and the small friendly diners would disappear.
Central Park was regarded as dangerous after dark, and I would be warned not to go near there.
It was safe in the daytime and I often walked around, finding it to be an oasis of calm away from the noise and smells of midtown. On Sundays the park comes alive, filling up with visitors, transforming into the ideal place for picnicking, ball games, jogging, skate boarding, busking, roller blading, movie-making, birding and romancing, and many more activities.
Washington Square Park also comes alive at the weekend, but walking through there on my earlier trips it was a dark, litter strewn area, frequented by drug dealers. In contrast, just a short walk from Greenwich Village, which had a totally safe, normality about it. On a couple of occasions my timing coincided with a street market, which was an interesting distraction.
Battery Park was one of my favourites, and I would combine this with a trip to Ellis Island and Liberty, climbing to the top of the monument, where there are windows in the crown offering great views of the city.
In the earlier days I would get a return ride the Staten Island Ferry, but on my third trip, I exited and took a bus ride. This was before mobile phones and the internet, and I had no clue as to what bus to take or where to go. The bus was packed tight, and I was one of two white faces. It emptied out after a few stops, and I grabbed my chance to exit. It was a pleasant, urban area and I had conveniently landed by a kind of museum. I remember it being some kind of naval hospital, with information on its use. But it was empty. I was the only visitor, and the one member of staff, ignored me. At one point I wondered if I was trespassing. I can see no indication of its existence on today’s maps, and they show restaurants dotted about, which were certainly not there back then.
The Staten Island Ferry Terminal on Manhattan was very different than today. There were not many shops and the hall was smaller. One day, waiting for a ferry, I watched a group of elderly Japanese tourists walking through. There were about twenty of them and they stopped near the rest rooms.
After a huddled conversation, they moved like a line of ants, and all disappeared into the Ladies entrance. I sat watching, hiding a smile, as a minute later the men filed out in a row, hesitating for a second, then shuffling into the Gents entrance.
On my first trip, I would walk around with my camera in a plastic carrier bag, trying not to look like a tourist. I wondered why I kept getting stared at by some of the homeless crowd. I had seen many of them walking around with similarly bulging bags, and even supermarket trolleys with several bags. I later learned that they collected cans, plastic and glass drinks containers to redeem for a few cents a piece, and regarded me as competition on their turf.
There were plenty of mentally disturbed people on the streets, some would shout abuse, others talked to themselves. One evening in Times Square, there were very few people around, and I was being shouted at as I crossed the street. I turned to see a man gesturing to me. He then removed a tatty old boot and threw it at me. It missed.
There is a line in a Paul Simon song “Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue”.
As I left my hotel on 4th Street one evening, looking for a place to eat
There was always an NYPD office in the centre of Times Square, and several officers were often on patrol, with a few mounted police at the weekend, mainly for the tourists.
Saturday evening on Times Square was crazy. It was the one night of the week when every theatre was packed and in the run up to 8pm, the surrounding restaurants were all busy. After few few trips I described it as the centre of the world, but not so much from Sunday to Thursday.
The nearby diners didn’t open until 7am, at the start of the commuter rush. Before that, the streets were empty. In the early years, if I was really hungry at 5.30am I would go into the McDonalds and have breakfast. It was always empty upstairs, and quite inhospitable.
As I sat there one night with a coffee, I listened to conversation on a nearby table about AIDS. It was fairly new and conspiracy theories were obviously spreading in the black communities, long before social media. My neighbours discussed how it was created by the government to get rid of blacks. I felt uncomfortable and finished my coffee quickly.
On many occasions, I travelled on the train to Bedford Hills, at various times of the day and night.
I would often spend the evening with my friend Gary, in one of the many bars, or at his home with his wife Elana. On most occasions, I would catch the train back at around 11pm, arriving at Grand central after midnight. The trains were slow and spacious, and I felt safer one them, than on any leaving London at that time of night.
On some of the first journeys, I would be the only person in the carriage, and I was always aware of new passengers when it stopped at 125th Street Harlem. But over the years, as I relaxed on the journey, I would fall asleep and wake up in Grand Central.
The streets were always empty as I walked back to the hotel.
I would only ride in a taxi if I was in a hurry or tired, not because they were unsafe or expensive, they were the opposite. I simply enjoyed walking around the city. On hot days I would call into a fast food restaurant to cool down, and maybe buy an ice cream. On warm days I’d stop to sit in a park with a coffee or cold drink. I would walk for miles, from Midtown to Central Park, then down to Wall Street or Greenwich Village. Maybe, by then I’d take the subway back.
Don’t go on the subway after dark, I was told. So I didn’t for the early trips, but even in the daytime, it had its share of strange people.
I liked the buses, once I figured of how to use them and understand the logic behind the system.
As most of the streets and avenues are one way, the routes would often go around in circles, as opposed to the London routes that I grew up with. With this system, you might have to walk a few blocks to get the same bus back, and it would probably stop a few blocks from where you started.
I understood then, why in the UK we get a return ticket, and in the US it’s a round trip.
On one bus journey, the vehicle broke down somewhere near Alphabet City. It was fairly full and all of us had to get off and wait on the sidewalk. I was in the middle of a mixed crowd of mostly housewives and elderly people. At first some were anxious to get going and there were all kinds of suggestions offered on how to fix the bus, some humorous, some rude. But after ten minutes we were all engaged in small talk, and when the bus was fixed, it was like breaking up a party. Americans are like that, they love a good conversation.
Before that, for several years I attended the show as a visitor, and helping out on the stand of one of the exhibitors.
My friend Gary lived a few miles out of Manhattan, after a few beers one night, decided to start up a business, importing greeting cards from UK publishers. It worked out okay for a few years, just about breaking even, until the dollar weakened and the profit dived. Before that, we exhibited at the Stationery Show for three consecutive years.
I would return to the show each year for a couple of decades and meet with the same reps, publishers and buyers, and made several friends, with whom I would spend many enjoyable evenings dining out and drinking.
On one of my first trips I was taught to walk like a New Yorker and told not to look up. It was meant to save me from getting mugged. Gary and I would meet up with Luke from Florida and John from Virginia. All three were well-seasoned drinkers and prone to act a bit crazy towards the end of the evening.
Our favourite bar was the Ginger Man, down on East 36th Street, where they had quite an extensive beer menu. We would normally eat first and meet there later in the evening, leaving at 3am, when they closed. Even in the early hours of the morning I never felt threatened whilst in midtown. It was certainly more dangerous in the southern states.
The Stationery Show was in May, and this was a great time of year to visit, although once every few years it rained.
One year temperatures climbed to 105F. Air conditioning unit clattered in every building, trying to keep up with demand, and the underlying smell of rotting vegetation (among other things) became more tangible.
One one such evening, a dozen motorcycles roared through Times Square towards Central Park. Everyone stopped to watch.
On my early trips I wandered around the financial district, taking a ride up one of the fastest elevators in the world and exiting at the top of the World Trade Center. The view was amazing, and arriving just after opening, I was the only visitor. Had I been told then, that twenty years later it would be destroyed by terrorists, I would ridicule the suggestion.
The World Trade Center plaza was always bathed in sunlight, reflected by the surrounding buildings, and apart from rush hour, it was relatively quiet and peaceful.
I visited the area eight months after the 911 attack and it was a mess, with most of the streets still closed, and boards everywhere with thousands of photos of victims.
The two most iconic skyscrapers in Midtown are the Empire State Building and the Crysler Building. I must have gone to the viewing deck of the ESB on every trip for at least ten years.
I would sometimes revisit on the same day. There were no queues, and hardly anyone else in the building. Unlike on my last visit in 2018, when we queued for nearly an hour to find the viewing area packed solid.
I visited in January, not long after the city had been hit with a huge snow storm. Where the snow had been cleared from the streets it was piled up fifteen to twenty feet high, and you could walk across the Hudson River, as the ice was so thick. I was there for a gift trade show, and the cold was so penetrating that I hardly went anywhere other than the exhibition halls and the hotel.
Stepping into a diner for breakfast was a luxury, the smells, warmth and lively chatter was a welcome escape from the cold, empty streets.
Another trip was in November, and timed to coincide with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But it was another freezing day, and according to the news something like a million people flooded into the city, all wearing thermal underwear and layers of warm clothing. Standing around for an hour, waiting for the parade to arrive, was a torment. You had to arrive hours beforehand to get a front row position, so I settled for more distant view, conveniently over a subway grating. The heat rising up was just enough to prevent what felt like the early stages of frostbite, in spite of the thermal socks. It was close to Bryant Park, where even the fountains were frozen.
Each year I would find new buildings rising up into the skyline, the sleazy venues of 42nd Street were replaced by office towers and big brand retailers. Many of the small cafés and diners, were gone, along with the pizzerias.
A new city was emerging, and with it came more tourists, and with them higher hotel room prices. From being one of the most dangerous cities in America, it was turning into one huge tourist attraction.
This was going well until September 11th, 2001.
It didn’t stop the progress, but it was certainly a large speed bump.
After that you could not enter a building without a passing through a metal detector.
That event also changed airport security and flying restrictions for the entire world.
In the 1976 King Kong movie the unfortunate ape stomps around New York City, and before climbing the Empire State Building, he grabs a carriage of the Roosevelt Island Tramway.
The cable car ride was built to give the island residents easy access to the city, and is used mainly by commuters.
Taking a round trip across the river was a most relaxing experience back in the 90’s. Moving gracefully over the avenues, between the skyscrapers was fun, but viewing the city from the quiet riverside park on Roosevelt Island was extremely relaxing. I sat there watching the helicopter tours go back and forth, the noise of the city had dulled to a low rumble, with the occasional siren. It was somewhere near here, on January 15th 2009, that an Airbus 320 with 150 passengers on board hit a flock of geese and landed in the river. All 155 people, including the crew were rescued. The story was turned into a movie called Miracle on the Hudson.
Frank Sinatra died on May 14th,1988. When it hit the news, Sinatra classics could be heard on car radios as the city celebrated his life.
Most of the bars that night paid further tribute, and as I recall, we all ended up singing New York New York.