Early Thursday evening and the café in New York’s Bryant Park is living up to its reputation as a hotspot for after work drinks. Meanwhile, several hundred locals, workers and visitors are enjoying a mass free salsa lesson on the lawn, courtesy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
A block east of Times Square beneath the imposing Bank of America Tower between the Empire State Building, the New York Public Library and the Rockefeller Centre, Bryant Park has been called the town square of Manhattan’s Midtown, and it was certainly buzzing when my partner and I visited during the recent heatwave.
A few days earlier, the theatre district down the road had thronged with fans flocking down Broadway to see the acclaimed West End production of Company and young people had packed a nearby restaurant offering jumbo happy hour Aperol Spritzes.
It looked like New York’s recovery was well underway. But in New York, as in London, first impressions can be deceptive. And in many ways these two great cities are facing similar post-pandemic challenges – and searching for similar solutions.
The continuing pressure on public transport in both cities tells the story. In London Transport for London remains locked in last-ditch talks with the government over the terms of further vital funding, and its New York equivalent, the Metropolitan Tranportation Authority (MTA), is, according to reports provided to it during our visit, “looking over a ‘fiscal cliff’ as federal funds near end of line”.
As in London, working from home at least part of the week is becoming the new normal in New York. The MTA has revised down previous forecasts and now reckons ridership on the subway, buses and commuter rail lines will reach just 74 per cent of 2019 levels by late 2024, meaning annual deficits heading north of $2.5 billion within two years.
With federal bailouts coming to an end, that leaves the MTA, like TfL, contemplating fare hikes, service cuts and job losses, prompting a looming battle with transport unions while desperately looking for new sources of revenue. MTA chief Janno Lieber is echoing TfL boss Andy Byford’s warnings too.
“Transit is essential to the economic future of New York as we continue to recover from the pandemic,” he said last week. “It should be treated as an essential service, with strategies that don’t just put the problem on the backs of our riders through painful service cuts and fare increases.”
Meanwhile, again as with London, vital international tourism remains sluggish, forecast to reach just 60 per cent of pre-Covid levels this year, with hotel occupancy at the same level and restaurant bookings still more than a third down on 2019.
Our experience certainly bore this out. No advance booking was needed to get to the spectacular 102 storey high One World Observatory at the Freedom Tower next to the moving 9/11 national memorial. A foyer display showed that the most popular origin of those pre-booking from outside the States was Mexico.
The Metropolitan Museum, surely one of the greatest museums in the world, was pleasantly uncrowded and the High Line, still a remarkable space more than a decade after it opened having batted back a demolition order signed by then mayor Rudy Giuliani, was a place to wander and contemplate the cityscape without having to battle through the former daily throng.
Again like London, unemployment in New York’s boroughs is running ahead of the national average, with midtown Manhattan, broadly equivalent to the West End, showing the slowest recovery. One block near Bloomingdale’s famous flagship store at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue was entirely vacant, with branches of Banana Republic, Gap and Victoria’s Secrets all shutting up shop, as traditional shopping patterns continue to decline.
What’s the way forward? New York’s Mayor Eric Adams, like London’s Sadiq Khan, is talking “inclusive growth” and reinventing the city for “all New Yorkers”, mindful that the city extends well beyond Manhattan and that the poorest neighbourhoods suffered most in the pandemic.
Adams’ extensive blueprint for recovery, as well as backing established business and commercial centres and investing in transport, highlights the need for affordable housing in all neighbourhoods, guiding the city to a “more equitable future”.
It’s a plan that has much in common with Khan’s London Recovery Board missions, with a recognition as well that boosting central neighbourhoods with more residents could be a key element as commuting and shopping patterns change for good.
New York remains perhaps the quintessential metropolis, and there’s still plenty of energy on its streets. However, like London, it faces an uncertain future. Both cities are mindful of the declines they suffered in the 1970s and 1980s, and a positive resolution of their respective public transport crises is vitally important.
As London woos Americans back, New York wants the Brits back too, and as that great city awakes from its Covid slumber, now might be a great time to visit.
Photo by Charles Wright.
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