Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Big Apple's Makeover

By James Busbee

DECEMBER 15, 1997: 

While visiting New York City last month, I thought of a joke that Georgia-born writer Roy Blount Jr. tells about the difference between Northern and Southern humor. A New Yorker asked Blount what Southerners laugh at that Northerners don’t. “Northerners,” he replied.

Unfortunately for Yankee-bashers, there’s a bit less to mock in the Big Apple these days. We know the clichés: Step out the door of your Manhattan hotel, and you’ll be robbed blind, then run over by incomprehensible, turbaned cabbies – if the rats don’t get you first, that is.

But the new truth is that New York City has gone out of its way to pretty itself up for the world – and it’s working. All of a sudden, the city has become an attractive tourist destination once again. Sure, Northerners can be an arrogant bunch – when I told someone I was from Memphis, she actually asked, “I’ve always wondered – isn’t it just totally boring in little towns like that?” But these days, they’re looking past the end of their own noses, and the metamorphosis has even native New Yorkers shaking their heads in pleased disbelief. The holiday season that began with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is traditionally New York’s time to shine, and it’s a fine time for out-of-towners to take in the sights and spectacle of a refurbished Gotham.

Much of the city’s makeover can be traced to the city’s recently reelected mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. According to the locals, Rudy takes credit for everything up to and including the sunrise, but he does deserve acclaim for what he’s done to his city. New York City is flat-out cleaner than it’s ever been. Litter doesn’t fly like confetti in the wind, and cabs don’t smell like incense – or worse – anymore. More importantly, with an increased police presence, crime is way down. (Which is not to say it’s vanished – the evening news still opens each night with a jaw-dropping litany of shootings, stabbings, disembowelings, and maimings.)

Forget Texas – everything about New York City is huge. The sheer weight of 8 million souls in the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan is awesome. The costs of everything, from hotel rooms ($180 a night, on average) to steaks ($28 at mid-level restaurants) can break you in a hurry. Even the city’s trash is impressive – New York’s Staten Island landfill is so large it’s visible from orbit.

You already know the city’s greatest hits: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, Central Park. You can’t swing a cat without hitting some famous locale you’ve seen on television or in the movies. Every native has a favorite pub, restaurant, or boutique. It’s overwhelming at any time of year. For my money, though, the city can’t be beat as a holiday destination.

Christmastime in New York is magnificent. The entire city is aglow, centering on Rockefeller Center. Located in the heart of midtown at 49th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, it features the city’s mammoth Christmas tree (shipped in by barge from upstate) overlooking the center’s famous skating rink. Next door is Radio City Music Hall, where a multi-hour holiday dance-and-music spectacular can drill holiday spirit straight into the most Scroogelike of skulls.

New York does Christmas shopping on a massive scale, of course. During the holidays, the city offers “tax-free” days, in which all purchases in certain stores are free of sales tax. Shoppers from hundreds of miles around will pay $200 a night to stay in a hotel to save $100 in taxes. It’s all part of the mystique, and the city has honed its allure to a fine point.

One of New York’s most notable features, no matter what the season, is its restaurant scene. Recommending just a couple of stops is impossible – there are world-class eateries for any tastes. Check out the Zagat Survey, a handy little guide, or similar books for a comprehensive look at all of the city’s major restaurants.

But for heaven’s sake, avoid the theme restaurants that are seeping through midtown Manhattan like an oil slick. Specifically designed to cater to you, the wary tourist in search of a comfortably familiar eatery, these vapid blights are a waste of time (lines to get in stretch for a block) and money (unless you consider a bland $8.95 hamburger a bargain). Skip the Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, et al. – you can do much better in New York.

The preferred method of getting around town is the cab. You can drive in New York, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Imagine Union Avenue with about three times as much breakneck-speed traffic, with zero regard for lane stripes. A few turns around Manhattan, and you’ll come back to Memphis wanting to kiss the morons who don’t signal turns.

Anyone who’s ever visited New York comes back with unforgettable stories. Four years ago, I proposed to my wife in Rockefeller Center on New Year’s Eve; eight hours later, she was in the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. As I sat in a Manhattan emergency room, I saw a man carrying his daughter’s finger in a sandwich Baggie, a mentally disturbed fellow locked in a dark room continually begging me to let him out, and an orderly wearing a Grim Reaper tie – and this was within the first 15 minutes.

Then this past October, as we lined up to run the New York Marathon, a camera crew from ABC’s World News Tonight asked me to carry a small camera and follow a geriatric marathoner for a few miles. I ended up on national TV following this staggering fellow, desperately trying to remember my Boy Scout CPR training.

Bottom line – the city has much to offer anyone, even dedicated Yankeephobes. So go. You think you can find the Big Apple’s brand of memorable insanity anywhere in the Mid-South? Fuhgeddaboudit.


For more information on New York, contact the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau at (212) 397-8222 or www.nycvisit.com.


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