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Eating soul food in Harlem

‘New York, New York, so good they named it twice!’

 A visit to the City that never sleeps produces the kind of sensory overload that you never forget, especially when the initial destination happens to be Times Square. Like a huge, neon acid trip, the towers of video screens and flashing lights bemuse and baffle in equal measure. But New York isn’t all hype. The place has a history as compelling as the view from one of its tallest buildings. This is America, after all. You can’t help but be impressed.

Tour guides are fascinating people. You tend to sit back and listen to their rambling monologues with the wide-eyed gullibility of school children on a day out. The freezing upper deck of a bus might not be the most comfortable way to see a city, but it’s certainly one of the most informative. You get the history and the statistics, with a little dry, native humour thrown in.

New Yorkers tend to be a chirpy and resilient people, brimming with self-confidence. Proud of their City and its heritage, they enjoy relating inspirational tales of its past for the gawping tourists who flock to visit each year. You want statistics? How about this. The Empire State Building was the tallest structure in New York at 1,250 feet, until the Twin Towers were built 40 years later. Anecdotes are aplenty too. How about William ‘Boss’ Tweed, the corrupt politician from Lower Manhattan, imprisoned for fraud in the same courthouse he’d been commissioned to build!

You soon get a sense of the pioneering spirit of the Founding Fathers and the collective ambition that spawned the great City. Later expansion of Lower Manhattan led to the famous grid system of streets and avenues, the building of bridges to connect the island to the mainland, and the eventual inclusion of neighbouring Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island to form the five boroughs.

Afficianados of 70’s movie culture might find today’s New York slightly disarming. The streets don’t seem so mean at all. In fact, you can walk for whole blocks admiring the architecture and the streams of yellow taxis, without a single gunfight or police chase to spoil your afternoon. A friend and long time resident of the City remarked on its apparent transformation, saying that, yes indeed, it had changed considerably. Ten, twenty years ago, the same streets would have been inaccessible to strangers. ’70’s New York was like cowboys and Indians,’ he said. ‘You had to be careful where you wandered.’

So, what happened? How did the grainy, triple-X facade of Times Square, so beloved of filmgoers and leather clad pimps, become the giant, sanitised cartoon it is today? Perhaps the answer lies in the inevitable march of progress. As technology advances, so do the aspirations of its leaders. Politicians, keen to make a name for themselves, step forward and initiate change. Rudy Guiliani, Mayor of the City during the terrorist attacks of 9/11, probably did more to rid the streets of crime than any other politician before him.

From a tourist’s point of view, the change is gratifying. Perhaps the greatest threat you face is being hit by a yellow taxi as you attempt to cross a busy street, or a heart attack brought on by attempting a king-sized steak in one of the many diners. But however the City may have changed over the years, you can’t fail to be inspired by its innate dynamism.

Perhaps the most moving sight of all, glimpsed from the upper deck of a ferry, is the Statue of Liberty. Guarding the entrance to the harbour, the famous outline comes slowly into view, and with it an overwhelming sense of majesty. For the thousands of immigrants making their way to Ellis Island from different parts of the world, the sight must have been especially emotive. For those that passed the rigorous medical, the rewards were bountiful, ensuring them free passage in the land of plenty. Those unfortunate enough to fail, had to return to their homelands, heartbroken, leaving behind their families and the hope of a new beginning.

New York has survived corrupt politicians, terrorist attacks, and, more recently, the devastating forces of nature. But the heart that beats at its centre is strong enough to defeat them all. And on the subject of free enterprise, perhaps the last word should go to current Mayor Michael Bloomberg: ‘No matter who you are, if you believe in yourself and your dream, New York will always be the place for you.’

I’ll be back.

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