Open Eye: New York, A Tale Of Two Cities

Simon Newton chooses one of this month's highlights from the OU on air
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The Independent Online
Cities are places of power, culture and unprecedented wealth. Cities are also places of social division and exclusion devouring most of the world's resources. Both the bright and dark sides of city living are explored in the new series The Pull of the City.

Most of the world's inhabitants will soon be living in cities. The Pull of the City seeks to explain why a million new people become city dwellers every three days. The mantra of "location,location, location" still matters even in an era of cyberspace communications.

The sheer diversity, energy and buzz of networking available in cities makes urban living irresistible to the new young entrepreneurs.

But whether you're trying to make history or just trying to make a living, cities still seem to have the answers. New York is the headquarters of city living. As urban enthusiast and series presenter Harvey Molotch remarks, "The buck stops in New York - so does the yen, pound and deutschmark."

With 436 international banks and the unprecedented bull market of the last few years, New York capital is seeking out new investment opportunities. As the global centre of new media projects, creators of new e-businesses meet investors over a caffe latte in restaurants, gyms and gallery openings.

Cities force money and ideas together. "In the arts and entertainment industries," says Molotch, "business is part of the choreography." Philanthropy and cafe society seem fuelled by the mobile phone and the canape.

But something is stirring in New York City. No longer is the city "hollowing out" with businesses and people fleeing urban crime and squalor. As Moltoch says, "Times Square used to be a combat zone for crack and crime", but now it is a key Business Improvement District. Real estate businesses are re-shaping the city.

The Wall Street district is becoming a Silicon Alley and the old sweat shops are becoming places where young entrepreneurs weave web pages rather than textiles. The junk bond factories of the 1980s are becoming small community television and internet businesses working closely together in refurbished downtown offices.

Yet how real is this transformation? Is Moltoch, as he puts it, "dealing with a bunch of flakes, or a new industrial revolution?" Internet entrepreneur Josh Harris, the proprietor of Pseudo.com, a "hip hop web station", already attracts advertising from big hitters like Sony, Coke and Bertelsmann. Venture capital is drawn to Harris's projects creating a community of money and ideas in a revitalised city centre.

Cleaning up the city also means clearing out. New atriums and plazas have no place for the street vendor and the homeless. For the people who fix the city's plumbing, drive the cabs, and serve the food, the city is still full of disorder and just getting by. Street bookseller Hakim Hasan sees the sidewalk as the last bastion of democracy with easy contact between all kinds of people.

Although the new public spaces recall the old city squares, they are now patrolled by semi-militarised private police. As Molotch says, "the very air is owned".

Civil liberties seem to be exhanged for bringing the middle classes back into the subway and onto the sidewalk. Is it a fair exchange or is it a question of 'There goes the neighbourhood?'

Street-seller Ishmael searches for old fashion magazines left in garbage cans to sell on his stall. Meanwhile a new internet business is being launched at another loft party, mixing money and creativity.

New York is a new deal but is it ideal and are we seeing our own urban future? This stylish series leaves the Gershwin and skyscraper cliches behind and presents what's really happening now in New York City.

The Pull of the City begins on BBC2 at 11.20pm on Friday 19 April.

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