High life | 25 October 2018

High life | 25 October 2018
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New York

In the dark she still looks good. The mystery and magnetism linger until dawn, then you slowly see the lines and the harshness. As with a lady of the night who has smoked 10,000 cigarettes, the coming of the light is the enemy. New York ain’t what she used to be, that’s for sure. She’s a tired old place: upper-class vertical living has gone to seed and the fun honky-tonk side of the city has been gentrified and made boring. As mayor, Michael Bloomberg did his best to ruin the glamour of New York, allowing glass behemoths to bury the Chrysler building, one of the world’s monuments to architectural brilliance. Bloomberg was and is a low life, who knows how to count to 50 billion but couldn’t tell you Admiral Nelson’s Christian name if his miserable life depended on it. The present mayor, de Blasio, is a low life without the billions.

What happens in the sky is felt in the streets below. The once exclusive Vanderbilt Avenue, where stores sold expensive tennis gear and hunting shotguns, is now a dark and dreary place, and just as well. The Vanderbilt was the hotel where the swells met, under the clock, from before Fitzgerald’s time until long past Taki’s. It has gone with the wind, a victim of Bloomberg types who descended on the city like the northern jackals that went down south.

The tens of millions of tourists who come here have turned the place into Disneyland, with thousands upon thousands of obese men and women staring open-mouthed up at Trump Tower or Grand Central. Food vendors draw people into the streets, Bengali taxi drivers honk their horns as if they were back home, and gumshoe cops are seen as rarely as the fuzz is in London town. No one walks the beat any more, not even the hookers. Grand Central Terminal opened more than a century ago and it is still the most beautiful railroad station ever. It was a welcoming public palace, and more movies were shot there about heartbroken couples than CNN and the New York Times have broadcast and published false news. The vast, vaulted hall was a place anyone could visit, its inclusive grandeur welcoming the poorest and the richest. No longer. The man in the grey flannel suit who used it twice per business day no longer travels; he works on his computer in his suburban home. This man of 1950s renown has been replaced by the hustler, the professional beggar, and the thug looking for trouble.

Park Avenue has been re-zoned but its buildings are still stately and expensive. It’s the people who live in them that are the problem. They are very rich but their manners are those of the carpetbagger. And they look even worse. No one wears suits or dresses nowadays. Men wear jeans and trainers and women wear leggings. Oh yes, I almost forgot: no one speaks English any more — in the street, that is, and I live on Park Avenue and 70th.

Immigration from the southern part of the Americas began in earnest in 1965 and is now in full flow. Whites are a minority in the city. Unlike the immigrants of times past who yearned to learn the language, these ones don’t so much as try. Even my housekeeper, Margarita, who has been with me for 40 years, does not speak a word of you-know-what. There are Spanish channels on television and every telephone message instructs one to press a button for Spanish. A large part of the police force is Hispanic, and the largest of the criminal gangs operating in the city are Dominican. Black New Yorkers have lost control of the heroin trade to Hispanics, but the black community is still a large recipient of that foul and evil drug.

New York used to be a sprawling Hopper painting: grand, sometimes melancholy, but golden. News-stands and candy stores, diners and cinema palaces, mixed headily with red-hued apartment houses laced with fire escapes. Beaux-arts townhouses and elegant co-ops lined the avenues on the upper east and west sides. Over the years the luncheonettes and candy stores came tumbling down to be replaced by condos and office towers. It’s called progress. The longer one lives in New York the more one loves the vanished city. It’s the same in London, but not Paris or Rome.

Fifty years ago last week, Aristotle Socrates Onassis married the most famous widow in the world, Jackie Kennedy, on Skorpios, his private island in the Ionian. The island is now owned by a Russian oligarch who keeps people out with dire warning signs on its beaches. I thought of Jackie last week as I crossed 998 Fifth Avenue; 998 was developed by Jackie’s maternal grandfather in 1912. No one remembers Ari and Jackie any more, nor does anyone notice 998 in particular. It is par for the course. Tall, slender and glassy is the style nowadays, and I for one hate it, hate it, hate it. New York, New York, once upon a time a hell of a town.