As Frank Sinatra sang, it’s so good you need to say it twice. I spent more time in New York City than any other place on my road trip – six days – but was ready to hit the road again by the end. It’s said that NYC is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
I was last in the city in 2001 to run the NYC Marathon with Andy Gilliver – he joined me for this visit. NY advertises the race as a 26.2 mile ovation, so we joined in cheering runners as we were cheered 21 years ago. If you’re a runner, make sure you get this box ticked before you hang up the shoes.
Our marathon was just after 9/11 – we saw the hole in the ground and the dust then, and the memorial and museum this time. The 9/11 Memorial evokes the tragedy of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, while the Museum sympathetically presents some of the more emotive episodes, such as the experience of those who chose to jump in their dire situation. Both brought tears to my eyes.
We explored many parts of the city. What struck me was that, along with all the other large American cities I’ve visited on my road trip, NYC is having to deal with the increasing levels of homelessness and deprivation. The causes are social and economic, particularly the inequality between the haves and have nots. Cities like NYC also have resources, which draw in those who need them.
Folk outside the cities and, indeed, many in the cities, have mentioned in conversations that these ‘dependents’ need to get jobs and society needs to be tougher. The problem is more nuanced than that but, as Americans are generally not speaking with those different from themselves, it will take a sea change in social and political behaviour for these issues to be addressed. I can see them getting worse rather than better.
Cities are attractive to immigrants, and NYC has been the gateway to America for as long as the country has been established. The Statue of Liberty greets immigrants who were processed for decades on Ellis Island – now, Texas ships immigrants up from the southern border as the US struggles with on-going migration. I’ve heard in my conversations that folk are not against immigration, but rather want more structure and control in the process. Given the job vacancies all across the country, the US needs both to embrace migrants and work more effectively with those who are currently dependent on societal support. The UK faces exactly these same issues.
NYC has been criticised for its rising crime, particularly on the Subway. We found it safe, as we did other parts of the city we visited. Ok, as tourists, we probably avoided some of the trickier places that are present in any large city, but the doom-mongers who say NYC and other large American cities are rampant with crime might be exaggerating the situation. Part of the criticism is political – the cities are Democratic-controlled, while more rural areas are Republican. Yes, the Democrats can be fairly criticised for their oversight of American cities but, equally, the Republicans are short on empathy and insight about the challenges that cities and their inhabitants face.
Finally, a visit to Washington Square Park brought home to me the importance of both civic action and the need for more reflection when proposing urban development. Many American cities have been trashed by urban planners, road builders, and developers – as have many in the UK. Whether it’s the demolition of historic buildings, their repurpose into things like car parks (e.g. Michigan Theatre in Detroit), or highways that slice through neighbourhoods, there has been a lot of urban vandalism over the past 50 years. The arch-planner Robert Moses met his nemesis Jane Jacobs at Washington Sq Pk and a good thing that Jane beat Robert. Likewise, we have John Betjeman to thank for saving St Pancras in London.
There is definitely an urban versus rural theme to this road trip. This comes out not just iin the blue and red politics, but also the lack of understanding of the other, the dismissiveness, the lack of civility in discussion. There are few signs that this is either recognised or being tackled by the protagonists on both sides. Having said that, sports fans certainly get along!