Over the decades our relationship has waxed and waned — only to rise again. I’ve felt completely understood by her and utterly alone in her belly. I’ve never felt happier than in her company, or more desperate than when her harshness rises.
A wide-eyed youth when it began, I was awed and thrilled, and a little fearful, of her power. She was terrible beauty going through a rough patch. She had a dangerous reputation and was nearly bankrupt. It didn’t matter. When I took a one-way trip through the tunnel under the Hudson River from New Jersey, and settled into a fifth floor walk-up off Washington Square, it was love at first sight — this was New York City.
Like all relationships, things have evolved and changed over time. The funky Greenwich Village of my youth has morphed into one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the city, pricing out the artists and oddballs. The Corner Bistro, a local dive where I took my first legal drink, has found its way onto the tourist circuit. Codgers now sip their bourbon beside the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, yet the atmosphere remains classic old-school New York.
While some charms are lost with time, others are gained. The High Line, the re-imagining of an elevated and derelict railway line, became an instant hit with locals and visitors alike when it opened several years ago, and has further transformed a booming Chelsea.
Any worthwhile relationship goes through changes and comes out stronger for the continued investment. Places I relied upon have closed and left me wanting; only for my exploration to then be rewarded. When my favourite diner shut its doors (every New Yorker has a favourite diner), I felt betrayed — until I found the Lexington Candy Shop Luncheonette further uptown. The burgers are even better, the black-and-white shake richer than any I’ve had in the city.
But as with any deep attraction, core attributes abide: dinner at Joe Allen, along Restaurant Row on West 46th Street, is still a favourite way to cap a night at the theatre (and their unadvertised Bar Centrale upstairs behind an unmarked door is even better); Sunday brunch at Balthazar, a big boisterous bistro in Soho, never disappoints.
Yet the obvious charms that strangers adore, intimates often take for granted. I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty, although I’ve taken the (free) Staten Island ferry at sunset and watched the sky turn purple over the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. I never went up to the observation tower in the World Trade Center, nor have I been to the Ground Zero Memorial, even though I’ve raced to catch the subway just outside its gate countless times. And only once have I been skating at Rockefeller Center beneath the giant Christmas tree (with an out-of-town friend).
But certain attributes of beauty are apparent to both the casual acquaintance and local alike. An hour walking the spiral at the Guggenheim Museum always leaves me shaking my head at architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius, no matter what art is on display. A stroll through the heavily wooded Ramble in Central Park transports me to another place entirely — and since my recent move uptown, the discovery of the often deserted North Meadow in the park’s upper reaches has me falling in love anew with the ultimate urban green space.
And the only thing better than a new flame is the fresh thrill of discovery in an old love. I recently went to the famed Apollo Theater for the first time in a rapidly transitioning Harlem. At the nearby Red Rooster on Lenox Avenue, the cornbread literally melted in my mouth. And I thought I knew all about the staid and buttoned down Upper East Side of Manhattan, until I discovered the rooftop bar at The Surrey, a posh uptown hotel with a downtown sense of chic, just off Madison Avenue.
As with all long-term relationships, over the years things are said that one doesn’t mean, and I’ve occasionally threatened to leave. But then I wonder where I’d go. There’s nowhere like New York in America; there’s nowhere like it in the world. It’s a singular place that welcomes us all with its brashness. Come, the stark, sentimental skyline beckons — your relationship with the greatest city on earth will be like no other.
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)