Madison Avenue, looking north from 40th Street

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NEW YORK – strictly old school

What else is there new to say about good old New York City? The architecture, the art, the people, the attitude; we know all about that. But maybe there’s one things that isn’t so apparent and of which I’m becoming increasingly aware. It’s the genuine ‘old-school’ nature of the place.

When I talk of ‘old school’ I don’t mean ‘old-school-as-appropriated-by-the- new school’, (think P-Diddy) or even ‘old-school-as seen-through-rose-tinted-spectacles’ (think of Scorsese) I mean ‘old-school-old-school’ – as in behaving in a way out of kilter with our contemporary experiences.

In many ways New York is locked in the past. I was a little surprising when I first realized New York is quite an innocent place. By reputation those two words don’t seem to go together, but that’s what I conclude.

Madison Avenue is certainly old school. Forget Mad Men. The 1950’s midtown advertising scene is alive and well in 2010. On warm July mornings you can still see the occasional advertising exec, in his crisp seersucker suit passing through the gilded lobbies of a grand old agency. Even I got to wearing a straw trilby to work one summer.

Of course, New Yorkers have an attitude. Don’t expect them to put themselves out for you. You’re probably not going to have a door held open and if you want directions you’re more likely to get a vague wave than a stop and chat. But don’t be fooled. I got to understand this coolness was less about being rude and more to do with New Yorkers being lost in their own little worlds. No wonder so many movies have been shot in NYC. Every morning 8 million personal movies are played out in the heads of its citizens on their way to work. The central character in the plot played convincingly by the shmo standing next to you in the subway. iPods have done nothing to help.

That bluntness is strictly old-school: no malice intended. You can see this whenever the personal reverie is broken. The sight of a stroller-pushing mother struggling down a subway staircase (virtually no working elevators note) will wake a dozen bystanders from their internal dialogues. These suddenly animated volunteers will including old folk, kids and even other mothers with strollers. Once called to action, no task is too big or onerous.

This response to others is far more direct and simple than in most European cultures, which tend to be laced with cynicism. That’s why American gossip magazines are so much less cutting (or fun) than their UK counterparts. New Yorkers really don’t do schadenfreude. They can be catty and cruel, but they can’t muster much energy for it. Too engaged in trying to succeed for themselves to get involved in someone else’s failure.

And there’s a very real and genuine pleasure they get from seeing others enjoying themselves. Having children can be a liability. When we first moved to Manhattan our four-year-old was freaked out by the number of gushing strangers who’d comment on his rosy cheeks, his ‘tow head’ or his sheer all-over ooby-gooby cuteness and I’m not just talking about spinsters of a certain age. You can add 5 minutes to a short walk from the subway, thanks to the policeman, the hotel concierge and the lady at the stop light wanting to bend down and ask him how’s life and where’d he get his hair – followed by an unwanted rub.

All of these simple exchanges take place in, or perhaps because of, a New York City that’s a surprisingly creaky and run-down.  There are big holes in the roads, the public amenities seem always on the verge of collapse and so many of the buildings look like they’re falling down.

Let’s face it, this town is physically beautiful but it was largely built in another time, pretty much between 1935 and 1965. The same could be said of the characters who live here. In stark contrast to London, this isn’t a deconstructed environment and these aren’t post-modern people. It isn’t complicated. It’s all out in the open. WYSIWYG.

So, on reflection, if someone was asking me to say something new about New York I’d have to say my most lasting impression of the City isn’t its architecture or art or even that famous New York attitude. It’s the innocence; the out-and-out openness of its people; a lack of guile. A genuineness. And it’s in this respect, rather than anything physical or stylized that New York is genuine old school.

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