Metroploitan life: Postcard from New York

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SoHoRRIBLE: When the SoHo Grand Hotel opened two weeks ago - a clanking, spanking-new 15-storey hommage to Fritz Lang's Metropolis - the moans of artsy New Yorkers could be heard all over Manhattan. On Mercer and Wooster Streets, where the terribly cool inhabitants of shabby-chic factory lofts had once kept a paint-splashed incognito, the cries of distress rose to a siren wail: SoHo is no more. For a decade or two, New York artists, architects and gallery owners had carved out a delectably down-at-heel existence amid SoHo's cobble-stoned streets - especially in the 30 elegant old industrial blocks known as the "Cast-Iron District". There were no grocery stores - who needed to eat with all that art to absorb? And there was no hoi polloi. Just a bunch of blissed-out, Warhol-loving, Vesuvius- Bakery-bread-buying elitists, revelling in the inconvenience of their digs. And then, one day, some other New Yorkers decided that they, too, wanted to dally as they sped between Canal Street and Houston Street. They wanted to visit the galleries, they wanted to admire the old architectural facades and, what's more, they wanted coffee, a bagel, perhaps even lunch, while they were doing so. And, oh yes, maybe a shop or two to look at. Now, the litany goes, there is a Starbuck's (coffee shop) on every comer, an Aveda (body product outlet) in between, and the SoHo Grand looms over a district that is officially dead.

Dead, schmead. It may be true that today Soho's narrow streets burble with more Saabs, Range Rovers, Alfa Romeos and other hateful voitures de privilege than any other American stretch of pavement outside of Hollywood Boulevard, and it may be true that more models, actors, tourists and Germans are to be seen parading self-consciously down these sidewalks than even on Miami's Ocean Drive. But none-the-less, a place that once attracted more rats than people has now become a thriving playground. In gallery- cum-cafes and antiques stores-cum-cafes, painters and singers linger for hours over coffee amid original artworks. At the new gourmet grocery stores that double as food museums, Judy Davis pushes past you at the Dean & DeLuca cafe check-out, John Malkovich hugs you after you shamelessly confess your adoration while buying your latte, at the art book store, you see Ethan Hawke over your shoulder. Even when you don't spot someone in SoHo, you can still tell you are Someplace. At Wax, Spy Bar, the Cub Room, and other ultra-designy new clubs and restaurants, overdressed young New Yorkers re-enact scenes from the Thin Man in a setting the New York Times describes as "decadent living room".

SoHo may be a theme park, but it is an adult theme park - an entity so rare that it deserves more reverence than scorn. Where else do thousands of Americans under 40 routinely gather to pretend that they appreciate art, cook with ingredients that Savarin would have wept to touch, can afford $5,000 paintings and $30,000 bedsteads, and care one jot for witty conversation? Those who complain about SoHo's lost glory are like the curmudgeons who renounce every Encyclopaedia Britannica since the 1911 edition; they have a point, but that point has a certain irrelevance. The 1911 Britannica may be brilliantly written, but it's unhelpful at providing information on, say, World War One and Two, penicillin, the atomic bomb, space travel, and the Kennedys. In other words; things change. SoHo's new definition of itself reflects a world in which Medicis are scarce, and Pietas are less in demand than highly-aesthetic faucets. And anyway, I'll let you into a secret; Old Soho's not gone, it's just moved to the Lower East Side.

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