New York won’t stand still for a minute. Oscar Humphries offers a personal guide to the Big Apple.
At eighteen, when most of my friends were backpacking around Thailand or South America, I was living in New York. Unlike many of the other Europeans living in Manhattan, I had a green card, which, pre 11 September, I grossly undervalued. After the super-model/art student girlfriend and the Soho House membership, green cards are the holy grail of the émigré Euro.
Anyone who has ever moved to New York will know that those first few weeks spent as a tourist, not as a local, are a time of experimentation, wonder, and mistakes. I ate at terrible restaurants, went to ‘bridge and tunnel’ nightclubs, and looked up family friends who were politely hospitable. Within a month, I thought I knew the city, even abbreviating street names.
‘Sixty-first and Lex,’ I’d tell the taxi driver – who knew less about the city’s geography than I did. Unforgivably pretentious, I even developed the faux American accent so beloved of English actresses living in LA. Working first for Vanity Fair, then for Joan Rivers, I was lucky enough to meet real New Yorkers – a rare breed. The many Brits, Greeks and assorted Eurotrash who live in New York stick together.
They huddle together in Euro clubs and restaurants and recommend immigration lawyers to one another. In my experience they have few American friends – they know the Olsen twins a little, who are from Sherman Oaks, California – immigrants also. For many Europeans, especially young Europeans, New York is a place to meet other Europeans – theirs is a city within a city.
Uptown or Downtown? Surely this is the most important decision anyone moving to New York makes. Soho has been ruined. The trendy clubs have become Starbucks, the galleries Abercombie & Fitch outlets. All the cool people have moved to Nolita and all that remain are mid-western weekenders mistaking one another for chic New Yorkers.
That leaves Chelsea, the Meatpacking District, and Nolita – not a Nabokov novel but New York’s most authentic and charming Downtown district. The advantage of being Downtown is that you’re plugged in. Near the galleries and restaurants and nightclubs, where – if you’re not working – you’ll spend most of your time. Bungalow 8 is still fun – certainly more fun than its anti-climactic London sibling. It’s full of Euros: German art students, young English aristocrats studying at the Columbia University film school, Saudis weekending away from Brown and Georgetown. I even saw some of my fellow Antipodeantrash last time I was there.
The Gold Bar is a new private members’ club that is very European in one respect – you can even smoke there – something you can no longer do in ‘old Europe’. In a city where clubs can open and close in the same month, Soho House has stood the test of time. An English idea, it has found favour with New Yorkers and visitors alike. The rooftop pool and the smoking room for that matter represent a little slice of Riviera cool in Manhattan.
I always stay at the Chelsea Hotel when I’m in New York – unless someone else is paying. The Chelsea describes itself as ‘almost certainly the most famous hotel in the world’, a title most of us would give to the Paris Ritz or the late Plaza. It’s not without charm. Unlike most of New York, it hasn’t been over-gentrified and houses the same international mix of writers and actors and bemused tourists as well as its many long-term residents.
Whenever I’m there, I convince myself that I’m paying more for my room than anyone else and that I’ll ‘never stay there’ again. Far better are the Maritime, Mercer, and Thompson hotels – all of which meld Uptown sophistication with Downtown cool. For many, staying Up and partying Down is the perfect compromise. The Pierre – where really grand Euros keep apartments – is about to begin a long overdue renovation. The Plaza has been turned into apartments that according to one New York friend ‘only Russians can afford’.
If you can’t borrow or buy an apartment on or near 72nd and Park, then I suggest the St Regis – the closest thing New York has to the Ritz. Like the Plaza Athenee, it’s all frescoing and gilding, but all of its ostentation is soon forgiven when you see the size of the rooms.
Lining Madison are restaurants where on sunny days men and women of European extraction stare at locals through Tom Ford sunglasses. Ameranth and La Goulue are both virtually Parisian. Le Charlot is another Uptown eatery crammed with young bankers and their Brazilian and Italian girlfriends. Returning to New York recently was a lesson in how New York had changed.
The East Village – where I’d rented a flat – has become almost genteel, the junkies having been ‘encouraged’ to move elsewhere. Serafina, an Italian restaurant full every lunchtime with people who don’t work, is unchanged. The Upper West Side is full of real New Yorkers with jobs and dogs and families. Bizarrely, it’s a little bit of New York in the middle of New York.