New York is the habitually unfinished city, home to a thousand exoskeletons and as many more vaguely futuristic building sites, a town in a constant state of flux. It is now also the most expensive city in the world (it just overtook Hong Kong), a place that makes London — itself ridiculously expensive but after Geneva rather embarrassingly only the fourth most expensive — seem almost reasonable. It’s now 25 to 30 per cent more expensive to eat out, get a taxi, stay in a hotel, buy a pair of trainers or even consider the cheaper secondhand options on the sidewalk outside the Strand bookstore.
Post-Covid, New York is now the place where you are forcefully encouraged to give your waiter an additional 25 per cent service on a meal that will almost certainly cost at least 25 per cent more than it would have done in February 2020. A cab from JFK is going to cost you north of $80, while a trip to Newark is easily three figures. It is a new city in other ways too, particularly in the more pronounced difference between uptown and downtown. Uptown is clean and “Tony”, downtown dirty and smelly (although I didn’t see the rats everyone had told me about); my old Vanity Fair colleague Graydon Carter says New York is “filthy”. Uptown (anything above 14th Street) is The Whitby Hotel (the midtown boutique of choice), and downtown Nine Orchard, a bank-turned-hotel with one of the most photographed rooms in the city — a cocktail lounge with the bank’s original vaulted ceiling (it’s been voted Esquire’s hotel of the year).
This hotel borders Chinatown which, according to those who make a point of knowing about these things, is this year’s hot area. You might have legitimately thought that New York had run out of places to gentrify, but until now the neighbourhood was stubbornly resistant. Take a visit today and you’ll find secret little fashion pop-ups, dirty little absinthe bars, and a new generation of hipsters who are moving into one of the few parts of Manhattan that still has relatively proportional rents. Men with Scandinavian beards and small white dogs and women with sleeve tattoos and DM boots are everywhere. And they’re doing the things you expect them to.
During lockdown, with indoor dining banned, a Vietnamese-American fashion stylist, Beverly Nguyen, 33, started buying kitchenware from local restaurant-supply stores — soup ladles, steam baskets, woks etc — to help them offload inventory, then reselling it in a pop-up shop, slipping them into window displays featuring artisanal extra-virgin olive oil and expensive designer bric-a-brac. Chinatown is now full of such places. Most people in their twenties have fled to Brooklyn (during lockdown all the uptown rich went to their houses in the Hamptons, with many of them staying), and yet Chinatown could be an indication that the city might want them back.
Homelessness in Manhattan is much worse than it is in London, with the latest figures hovering just under 90,000 on an island of only 1.6 million people. We only have approximately 10,000 (out of nine million). The homeless in Manhattan are unsurprisingly more bullish than they are here, and when they approach you for money it’s less a cry for help and more the start of a negotiation (they’re prepared, and you’re not). One of the most powerful memories of my trip last week was a man in his mid-thirties, sitting up in his makeshift bed outside a fancy designer storefront on Fifth Avenue, sipping a Diet Coke and reading an iPad. As they say, only in New York.
The city — like London — is also predictably split on Gaza. I bumped into an acquaintance at an uptown soiree, and he told me his wife had banned him from going to dinner parties. His explanation was that he had fairly nuanced feelings about the conflict and would therefore be socially cancelled by the kind of people doing the hosting. For many, the issue remains binary, and they’re not the kind of people who want their prejudices questioned over pork cheek chilli or flame-grilled asparagus with sour cream gribiche. No matter how eloquently you do it.
Uptown, downtown, don’t mention the war.
Dylan Jones is the Evening Standard’s Editor-in-Chief