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Friday, November 7, 1997 Published at 15:53 GMT




image: [ Henri Astier in New York ] Return to New York

Henri Astier
Reporting from New York

The Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, has been re-elected for a second four-year term of office. Mr Giuliani, a Republican, had based his campaign on the dramatic drop in crime over which he's presided. New York is now one of the safest cities in the United States. The BBC's US Affairs analyst, Henri Astier, spent a year there a decade ago. When he returned in advance of the election, he found the city transformed in many ways -- but unchanged at heart

My favourite quote about New York City is by the late British novelist, Kingsley Amis: "Anyone who walks up Fifth Avenue on a sunny morning without feeling his spirits lift", he wrote, "is an ass." I think he used a different word, but that was the idea. By that standard, I am definitely not an ass, or whatever Kingsley Amis said. Wherever I walk in mid-town Manhattan, I feel my spirits rise heavenward. My confidence gets a big boost, and something inside me says: "Just try and stop me."

When I returned to New York last week, I hadn't been there since the late 1980s. I found the place transformed in many ways. For one thing, it's clean and safe. Back then I was studying at Columbia University, which overlooks Harlem. From the campus you could see down below a wasteland of gutted buildings and burning cars. Sometimes my wife and I ventured into the ghetto, and we felt very brave.

The New York of those years was nicely captured in a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe -- a tale of racial hatred and senseless violence. During my recent trip, it took me a while to realise that the bonfires have been put out, at least for now.

One day, I had an appointment with a police chief in Washington Heights, an area in northern Manhattan which used to be a drug-ridden war zone. When I got off at the wrong subway stop I felt like the main character in the Bonfire of the Vanities, whose life unravels after he takes a wrong turn. I took off my tie, tried not to act like an obvious target and began nervously looking for a taxi. But it seemed as though no cab driver with any sense ever came here. In the end, I asked a group of menacing-looking youths where the police station was, and retreated into the relative safety of a passing bus.

When I got to the station, the officer behind the desk took one look at me and said, "You must be our friend from across the Atlantic." "Is it written all over me?" I replied. He smiled back and said: "Yes". So much for my efforts to blend in. I fully realised how absurd my fears had been when a policeman took me on a tour of Washington Heights: the drug dealers were nowhere in evidence, and candy stores were obviously doing a better trade than crack houses. Thanks to a booming economy and the mayor's aggressive drive against crime, the area has been returned to the residents.

The transformation is happening all over New York. I knew about the revitalisation of Times Square, the former red light district. But reading about it is one thing, seeing the new Disney stores and gaudy family restaurants which have replaced the strip joints is another. I preferred the seedy charm of the old Times Square, but the residents I talked to seemed to welcome the change.

In its essence, though, New York has not changed. It still energises you like no other city in the world. The friends I'd left eight years ago had made successes of their lives: the former computer engineer was now working as a high-tech wizard for a Wall Street firm, the former magazine writer was having his latest book turned into a Hollywood movie. And the clean up of the city is itself a typical New York success story: it shows that almost anything is possible.

It was also comforting to see that many small things are still the same: the difficulty of communicating with cab drivers, for instance. When I got into a taxi and gave the man an address in Greenwich Village, he asked me where the place was. When I suggested that he might look it up on a map, he gave me a look of baffled amusement and said: "A what?"





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