Five o'clock on a weekday evening and Grand Central Station is full of people rushing frenziedly to their various destinations. Times Square teems with people of assorted ages, dress and ethnicity. Among them are a woman with black spiked hair, black funky clothes, black fingernails and seriously black eye makeup, an elderly man dressed up as a white-faced clown, street vendors hawking everything from "hot" watches to designer handbags and any number of folks talking to themselves, looking decidedly psychotic. Some things never change.
Or do they? When I lived in New York City in the 1960s as a single working woman, I witnessed these scenes daily. But on one of my frequent visits back to Manhattan recently, it was clear that, in fact, a great deal has changed. Grand Central, a midtown landmark, has been restored to its original magnificence. Times Square is no longer the seedy center of sexual perversion it once was (although a few sex shops are creeping back in); it is now a monument to brand name consumerism. And a lot of the people talking to themselves aren't really crazy. They're just chatting or cutting deals over their cellular phones or jiving to an Ipod.
Rizzoli's Books and other specialty shops are gone from Fifth Avenue and some of the more posh stores like Steuben Glass have moved uptown on Madison Avenue. But St Patrick's Cathedral still looms over Rockefeller Plaza, even if many other landmark buildings are gone, replaced by steel and glass monoliths that house the well-off and the well-connected. The rotund Guggenheim Museum and boxy Lincoln Centre, newly developed and controversial in the 1960s, are now barely distinguishable in the concrete landscape, while the 1980s twin towers of the World Trade Centre are tragically, eternally, gone from the skyline.
I love returning to this city that defined me as a young woman. Things have certainly changed politically. Lois, who worked in New York as a theatre and dance company manager before her retirement and continues to live there, remembers the days when liberal mayor John Lindsay walked the streets of Harlem to quell racial tensions resulting from the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Mayor Rudy Guiliani, succeeded in late 2001 by fellow Republican Michael Bloomberg, will more likely be remembered for his controversial practice of rounding up homeless people, although he did get drivers to stop the relentless honking of horns that pierced the night for years. Bloomberg, Lois says, is "more civil" than was Guiliani. "He has improved the image of New York."
That image has always got a bad rap. The stereotyping of cab drivers and other New Yorkers as rude, loud and uncaring never held up if you lived in the city. (The insider's joke was always, "New York is a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit.") The fact is, New York is a city of neighborhoods where folks watch out for each other. Everyone from the Korean deli clerk to the owner of the Chinese laundry knows you and cares how you're getting on.
This was especially apparent during the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and in its aftermath. About that period Lois says, "We had particular, awful reminders for a long time: the photos pasted to buildings, firehouses and police stations. When the wind blew in your direction, you didn't want to think about what was causing the horrible stench. We cared for each other in very special ways."
Nevertheless, the city has changed in some fundamental ways over the years. Aside from seeming more crowded and more commercial, there are different and more inclusive moral values, there's more openness, according to Lois. For example, the gay population is more comfortable here now. And the arts have opened up more to women, including in administration. But you'll still find men getting preferential treatment. She cites restaurants as an example: "Some places still defer to a woman if she's accompanied by a man."
Rachel, 31, a documentary filmmaker, who works in Manhattan and lives across the East River in Brooklyn finds the city too diverse for easy characterization. New York, she says, is different for a corporate lawyer, an actress or a student. "Our diversity reflects the range of opportunities women have here today," she says. "But we'd all agree that living in New York is hectic, energizing, overwhelming, exhausting, delightful and never easy. It requires chutzpah and a sense of humor."
Both qualities are also needed to tackle the city's dating scene: Good-looking, smart, thoughtful, available, straight men are apparently hard to find in New York! For young, single women like Rachel, the expectation is still that you haven't "made it" unless you have an extremely successful career and a relationship with prospects of marriage and baby well in view.
New York may have become more "mainstream" since the 1960s. Rachel comments: "Unfortunately, the city is dominated by the advertising culture and truly independent thought has been appropriated by the corporate machinery." She imagines the New York of the 1960s to the 1980s as "a tougher, dirtier, but more artistic and emotionally raw city". Today, the city "doesn't feel nearly as authentic". "It's almost as if the culture here is desperately trying to redefine itself. But then, maybe that's what everyone said in the 1960s too."
Despite the high cost of living here, neither Rachel nor Lois would live anywhere else at this stage of their lives. Both of them love the city's theatre, museums, restaurants, bargains and more. But what they love best is the diversity of culture, ethnicity and opinion. Says Rachel, "Each neighborhood has a unique identity and pride. People in New York are full of love. When someone swears at you here, it's a sign of endearment in some weird way."
Lois sums it up: "It's alive!" So am I, whenever I visit.