David Usborne: Our Man In New York

Give me hodgepodge over 'tourist-friendly' any time
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The Independent US

Don't fuss to me that you can't find your way around the subway in New York, that the theatre you went to last night wasn't on Broadway at all but at least two blocks away or that the cab drivers here haven't been opening the door for you even after a generous tip. Yeah, well, that's how things are here.

It seems to me that tourists who find themselves a little disoriented on their first visit to the Big Apple should celebrate. What's the point of traveling to a place if it turns out to be just like home? Where's the challenge or the exoticism in that?

No wonder the campaign to make New York more "tourist-friendly" depresses me. The city fathers seem bent on removing all challenge and making our town as urban-generic as possible. It's why Times Square feels like the inside of a terminal at a major airport, identical apartment towers are rising on almost every block of Manhattan and even bookshops and coffee shops have been standardised. (Barnes & Noble, Borders and Starbucks). It used to be that one of New York's greatest quirks was the near-total absence of public loos. (Starbucks is for pee-taking first and coffee-drinking second.) Yet even that is changing. Work has just begun erecting 20 shiny-steel pay-toilets in strategic spots around Manhattan.

It is all part of what Michael Bloomberg, our very orderly mayor, calls his Street Furniture Initiative which he first unveiled in 2003 complaining that New York was clogged with a "hodgepodge of unattractive things". He especially didn't like the neighbourhood newsstands that can seem close to collapse under the weight of tabloid dross and soft-porn magazines. One man's charming is another man's mess.

The job of lifting the city's face was given to Spanish company, Cemusa, which in turned hired the British architectural firm, Grimshaw, to do the designing. But a few weeks ago, I began to notice all the new bus shelters and newsstands popping up. Before it's over, we will have 3,300 of the former and 330 of the latter.

Someone decided that the Europeans are better at urban design than Americans and hence the handing of the job to Brits and Spaniards. And the shelters and newsstands are not bad. They are sleek and modern with steel and tempered glass. But they are all exactly the same and plenty of New Yorkers are mad. None has failed to notice, meanwhile, that these structures are conceived largely with a view to maximising dollar-earning advertising space.

"Oh, I just figured it out," began an anonymous post on a New York Times web forum about the new designs. "Ikea was having a sale on newsstands". Indeed, scroll through the first 30-odd postings and you will find not a single bravo among them. "Hilarious. The city tries to improve and comes up with complete crud," yelps another missive.

Bloomberg surely had a small baby on Tuesday when denizens of Chelsea awoke to discover that one of their new bus shelters had been vandalised with graffiti burned onto the glass with acid. Ah, old Gotham habits were reasserting themselves. It was replaced in 24 hours

Personally, I would take "hodgepodge" over uniformity any time. Who wants every neighbourhood of New York to look the same?

Bloomberg can't do much about the subway with so many different lines identified by colours and numbers going in so many directions. How about this though? A few weeks ago, circular stickers began appearing immediately outside the exits of some of the busiest subway stations applied to the pavements with arrows pointing to north, south, east and west and identifying nearby street names.

The stickers should help not only the tourists but all of us who live here, too, since before long there will be no distinguishing one part of town from another.