New York doesn’t need me to tell her she is one hell of a town. To avoid all doubt, I can confirm that yes, the Bronx is up, and the Battery is most unequivocally down. Which brings us round to the holes in the ground.
As a visitor, I was delighted to see that the fine island Manhattan was dotted with the bike hire stands that we Londoners have come to know and love. Sitting astride one of these chunky bikes may make you feel less like Chris Hoy and more like someone who is sitting on a lethargic rhino, but they are a terrific way of getting around London, whether you are a worker bee like me, or a temporary visitor (once you have cracked the impenetrable method of borrowing a bike by jabbing at the screen and swearing in your native tongue). It is not, however, a great way of seeing New York.
It’s those holes in the ground. London has her share of potholes, but trust me, NYC is like going off road, even as you are spinning past Macy’s. It’s the temperatures you see: the summers boil and the winters freeze, and while the good people of New York can wrap up or strip off as required, the Tarmac has to lie there and take it. It’s easy to be distracted: New York is the New Yorkiest place there is, and a film maker could plonk their camera pretty much anywhere in the city, turn it 360° and the viewer would be in no doubt as to where they were. We know New York from a thousand movies and TV shows, all of them with the patina of old film stock and fuzz of video because New York was where you set things because New York was where telegenic stuff happened because New York looked great and was dangerous. And danger is the stuff of storytelling.
Today, NYC is clean, safe, and fun. Last time I went, my guide pointed out all the playgrounds where you used to be able to get heroin, but are today where the yummiest of mummies – or at least, some fine-boned nannies – push their toddlers on swings. These parents wouldn’t dream of giving a smack, let alone taking some. With a bit of a shrug, most New Yorkers will admit that, whatever they thought of his politics, Mayor Giulliani cleaned the place up.
The USA is a friendly place, but just a little-more-than-usually hostile towards government. I remember entire episodes of the sitcom Roseanne being dedicated to grumbles about the arcane tax system. Indeed, the Americans talk about how much tax they pay in exactly the same way that the Brits discuss the weather. Opponents of Democrat hopeful Bernie Sanders call him a ‘socialist’ with the same air of finality that you’d declare someone a ‘paedophile’. Yet the Americans as individuals are generous, hospitable and however much they may hate the word, engaged in a massive project that can only be described as socialist.
If socialism can be broadly defined as a population flinging their cash and goodwill into a big pot to be used for the betterment of society as a whole, then look no further than the United States Military for a prime example of socialism run riot. They are not the Google Army, and wars are not Brought To You By Diet Coke. It’s expensive – the US spends more money on their military than the next nine biggest militaries put together – and has widespread public approval. ‘Support Our Troops’ bumper stickers were common even in liberal metropolitan enclaves like, well, New York. If you want to be unelectable, talk about cutting the defence budget. Suggest the sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan caused more problems than they solved. Annoy the veterans.
The USA would rather spend money dropping bombs on Afghanistan than it would paying for the treatment of the pilot when he leaves the air force – whether he has PTSD or an ingrowing toenail. But while those of us who have taken the NHS for granted find this resistance to an equivalent system baffling, it is because historically, the wealthy have not always kept their shekels to themselves. The Transcontinental Railroad is a good example of how the Americans like to spend their cash for the benefit of the country as a whole. Two private companies, starting at different ends of the route, built their lines and met in the middle. Private money, yes, but with the greater purpose, three short years after the ruinous civil war, of joining the nation together. The final hammer blows were cheered in the streets of San Francisco and New York.
The Rockefeller Centre has an exhibition on the way up to the viewing platform that tells the visitor how Mr Rockefeller supplied the jobless of New York with (low paid, dangerous) employment during the Depression. Was this the action of a benevolent billionaire? Or a clever ruse to exploit cheap labour? Could it have been both? It’s part of the American culture to make money, but it’s also in the national character to tip the waitress; when I worked as a tour guide, I would end by saying, ‘If you’ve enjoyed yourself, tip like an American. If you haven’t, tip like a Brit,’ and everyone laughed, and everyone knew exactly what I meant.
So contrary to perceptions, America does have the stomach for big spending, even if they want it to be by choice from the pockets of the wealthy rather than from the public purse. And here I sniff an easy win for Donald Trump.
He likes to build tower blocks with his name on them. He likes to lay waste acres of Scotland for golf courses. But how much better would it be if he fixed the roads in NYC? He has the money – US$4billion, apparently. He has the clout. Every spring, American blue collar workers would drive a fleet of Trump Trucks to meet in Manhattan and fix up the ravages of winter. If Mr Trump took a bike to work instead of a limo with excellent suspension, he would already know this. If he talked to the average New Yorker who’d turned their ankle in a pothole when crossing the road, he’d know this. If he thought about making the streets better rather than wondering which skyscraper he can write his name on next, he would know this. If he thought about what he could do for his country rather than the other way round, well, you get the idea. And if he did it, I doubt that many would begrudge the renaming of 5th Avenue as ‘Trump Avenue’ to celebrate the City’s benefactor.
That, to me, sounds like a better legacy than ‘failed presidential candidate, 2016.’ Don’t build your wall on the Mexican border, Mr Trump. Take the workers and the concrete mixers and go north, old man, to the streets of New York.