West Side Story: Why nothing can touch New York for adventure and diversity
From her first J1 to countless return visits as an adult, Constance Harris has fallen head over heels for Manhattan...
I was sad to read a recent report on the fall in number of Irish students applying for the J1 Visa to the USA. No longer is it enough to have some cash and an address for the first night; now you must have a promise of employment.
This last condition is proving to be the hurdle that students today cannot overcome - and so they are apparently flocking to Canada instead.
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While I can understand why the American government would prefer that Irish visitors have the protection of promised work, my J1 experience and job searches at a time of zero work in New York led to extraordinary adventures, life altering relationships and a lifelong love of the great borough of Manhattan.
I first went to New York on a J1 Visa in 1989 at the age of 21. I stepped off my Aer Lingus flight as green as they come to a city that was dirty, dangerous and tough. It was also beguiling, fascinating and passionate.
It was the end of the notorious 1980s, the time of Studio 54, Andy Warhol, sexual decadence and party lifestyle. Aids was an emerging plague terrorising the gay community.
The 'wolves of Wall Street' had crashed and burned and the pawn shops were full of their Rolexes. Madonna was just making her way to the top, so anyone who had a story of sleeping with her was telling it. Times Square was seedy. The streets were run down. Beggars were everywhere. But so, too, were cinemas and book stores and vibrant street markets.
Fifteen years of radicalising city mayors with policies of zero tolerance of crime, 9/11 and the dramatic power shortages that led to people being trapped in their tower blocks led to everything changing.
Today, New York is a model city of re-generation, gentrification and civilised community.
As the emigres would say of their left-behind homelands - I miss the old country.
For what New York then lacked in niceties, it made up for in richness of character. Yes, people rode the subway with dark glasses on for fear of making a connection, and if you tried to stop someone on the street for directions, they kept walking.
Yet, the several times I found myself in trouble, New Yorkers always came to my assistance. In the diners and on the streets, they acted out their domestic disputes for all to consume like it was soap opera.
And nowhere was this more fantastically played out than in the West Village, where I landed my first job. The West Village was where everyone who was famous, arty or creative lived. So it was the place everyone wanted to live. They still do; Apple and Google both have big stores and headquarters there, as do all the leading designers, extending up to the Meatpacking District.
It was also, by reputation, mafia controlled. Film director Martin Scorsese grew up in Little Italy.
Working there was what led to my love affair with the West Side of the city. Amazingly, for all Manhattan's big changes and the fact that parts of it, such as the Meatpacking district, have become synonymous with new wealth, the West Side of the city still has maintained a lot of its artiness and individuality.
In getting to know this aspect of New York, starting downtown and working your way uptown, a slight cheat as it is slightly east but I heartily recommend it, is a visit to the Tenement Museum, 103 Orchard Street (tenement.org). This will be your best introduction to the creation of this great city and the immigrants that built it. It is moving, factual and fascinating. Booking in advance is essential as space is limited and tours book out early.
From there you can walk to Little Italy and SoHo (South of Houston Street) which is the epicentre of hip cool in New York and a gateway to the West Village.
SoHo has its own strong architectural identity as it is made up of Ironstone buildings from the late 1800s and cobble streets. Today, it's full of designer and lifestyle stores, but it also is rich in unique cafes and restaurants, bursting with history and character and still has casual street traders selling everything from their own personal belongings, to art and fortune tellers.
Fanelli Cafe on 94 Spring Street (fanelli-cafe.com), has been in existence since 1847. It is in fact a bar that serves food, and not only has it real history and not been destroyed by tourists, it still has only-in-New-York regulars frequenting it. A definite for popping into in the evening or at the weekend.
Though many of the city's art house cinemas have gone, Film Forum on 209 West Houston Street (filmforum.org) still flies the flag for lesser known international cinema, as well as reviving great masters and documentary classics such as Paris is Burning, an extraordinary record of gay Harlem and fashion in the 1980s. The staff are a joy to chat to, so if you are a film nerd this will be your Mecca.
At this point, you are, officially, in the West Village. You can opt to wander it's higgledy-piggledy streets (unlike the rest of Manhattan which was built on a grid plan) and discover and create your own New York experience, or you can go to the High Line (thehighline.org), the garden in the sky built on the footprint of a former freight railway line, that New Yorkers are so proud of. It runs from Washington Street in the West Village to West 33rd Street. It is part garden, part boulevard, part cultural centre, part whatever the community needs, floating above street level. It is especially lovely to wander as the sun sets.
As you walk the High Line you will pass through other West side villages. You might want to hop off at the Meatpacking District, around 14th Street and up to the 20s, to see the latest in designer and cool. This is a young-ish, money area (dot.com has a lot to answer for) so be prepared for restaurants and cafes being pricey and the service indifferent.
From this point on, you are in Midtown Manhattan. One of my favourite things to do in New York, which is an utterly tourist thing but that doesn't make it any less fantastic, is to do the full island of Manhattan tour by boat with Circle Line tours (circleline.com) at Pier 83, Midtown. If that doesn't float your boat, well Midtown means theatre district and every big Broadway show you can imagine.
Also Times Square which is now all about big brands and spectacle.
I am not a fan of Times Square so this is the point where I like to jump on the super-fast Uptown 2 train which has me back in just five minutes to my lovely Hotel Beacon on 75th Street and Broadway, a place that I have returned to time and again for it makes me feel like I live in New York again.
The Hotel Beacon (2130 Broadway, NY 10023 (beaconhotel.com), though a modern hotel in all the ways that matter, is quintessentially New York with its mix of long-term tenants and guests. Rooms have kitchen facilities and there's a laundry room like in Friends. The manager, Thomas Travers, is a gentleman and a genuine New Yorker with great stories of the neighbourhood. This area is near where John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Woody Allen and Mia Farrow lived. If you want to pretend to be them, book the fab suite 1211 on the 23rd floor with its rooftop views to the Hudson River at one end and Central Park on the other.
This is a true West Side neighbourhood with an Apple store five blocks away - a nice calm one; the gorgeous old Beacon Theatre is right next door; to its other side, an authentic Greek-run New York diner; the Lincoln Center film society is a few streets away. It even has a Bloomingdale's outlet nearby where Dior boots were reduced from $2,000 to $200.
Apart from a bargain, of utmost importance to all Manhattan-ites - Central Park is on the doorstep. A place so full of things to enjoy and discover, it is worthy of a holiday in itself.
Nothing can touch New York for adventure, diversity and new experiences. And it all began with the J1 visa and the most exciting Aer Lingus flight of my life.
Take Two: Top attractions
This is an institution in Upper West Siders' lives, one of the last New York flea markets. Great for food styles and movie-star spotting, at 100 Columbus Avenue and 77th Street, Sundays from 9am.
Attend a Sunday gospel mass in Harlem and hear true, beautiful, gospel singing and religious service. Dress appropriately (no shorts and bare tops) and don't leave when the singing is over; it's disrespectful.
Aer Lingus, Ireland's only four-star airline, operates up to three daily flights from Dublin direct to JFK and Newark, New York, as well as six flights a week from Shannon to JFK, New York. Fares cost from €159 each-way including taxes and charges, when booked as a return trip.
* Travelling with Aer Lingus, guests can benefit from US-pre-clearance at Dublin and Shannon Airport, and on-board complimentary meals and drinks plus the latest in-flight entertainment system boasting latest blockbusters, box sets and more.
* Guests can also avail of wi-fi on-board.
* For more information and to find all the best deals, see aerlingus.com
* Hotel Beacon NYC, 2130 Broadway at 75th Street, New York, NY 10023. For more information; beaconhotel.com, telephone 0018005724969.
* For more to see and do in New York, see nycgo.com.
This story originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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