David Usborne: Our Man in New York

Just as well the Leaning Tower of Pisa isn't in Manhattan. Someone might sue
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The Independent Online

New York is less risqué than it used to be. And now it's less risky too. It is the fault of the insurance companies, of course, and of the lawyers waiting to pounce. You hear the radio ads every day. Scraped a knuckle at work? Squashed by a falling tree? Then call this number - 1-800-SUE4CASH.

New York is less risqué than it used to be. And now it's less risky too. It is the fault of the insurance companies, of course, and of the lawyers waiting to pounce. You hear the radio ads every day. Scraped a knuckle at work? Squashed by a falling tree? Then call this number - 1-800-SUE4CASH.

This surely explains the latest madness to afflict our neighbourhood. It was two weeks ago on my daily morning walk, accompanied by the snuffling pug, around the perimeter of stately Gramercy Park when I spotted the notices posted on the railings. "Caution: trees with yellow tape are liable to fall".

Not being a resident of the square itself, I have no key to penetrate the park. (Yes, I am bitter.) So I had no immediate cause to flee or invest in a tree-on-head policy. But I was curious. The four trees in question, cordoned off as if marking crime scenes, looked perfectly healthy to me. If a hurricane was looming, I was unaware of it.

Time would cure this silliness, I assumed. The yellow tapes would fray and the picnics beneath the park's green canopy would resume. How naive am I. Last Tuesday, I was there again and gosh-darned if all four trees had not vanished overnight, even their stumps pulverised into mounds of fragrant sawdust. Gone in a fit of aboricide were a London plane, a horse chestnut, an Ohio buckeye and a Norway maple.

It is not the trees that were off-kilter, if you ask me, but the park trustees. A professional arborist, it transpired, had advised them that one day the trees might - just might - topple over. Well that was that. Better eliminate them straight way. Plenty of the square's residents, I am pleased to report, are even more dismayed than me. They - and the Gramercy squirrels - are, well, barking mad.

The same sort of mentality appears to be behind the brouhaha over Washington Square Park. It is not the park's trees that are at issue, but its reputation. On the edge of the West Village - once a neighbourhood of bohemian mien, but no longer - it has been known to harbour the occasional unreliable type. In other words, it has fulfilled its mission as a public park, by being accessible to all. (Unlike Gramercy.) If it is unruly sometimes - skateboarders, marijuana vendors - never mind.

But nowadays we do mind. Or at least the Landmarks Preservation Committee apparently does, which last week proposed a $16m makeover. The fountain must be relocated - it's apparently slightly off-centre - as must the dog-runs. Most important of all, they want to ring the whole park with a four-foot fence with spikes on top. That should discourage the riff-raff, and babies in prams will be safe from dangerous social influences. Order must replace mild chaos.

Turf alert

The nanny-city is even tampering with the traditions of Central Park. The expanse of the Great Lawn is about the only place in Manhattan where large out-door gatherings can happen. Protest rallies, visits by the Pope, Michael Jackson concerts, you name it. All such events (aside, possibly, from the last) would draw huge crowds. Democracy needs an occasional crowd.

This time it was a turfologist that spooked the city. Yes, a turfologist. Following his counsel that the grass could not take too many stamping feet, our politicians have just issued a regulation stipulating that only six events can be held there in any year with a capacity of only 50,000 each. (The Dave Matthews Band attracted 85,000 one night last year.) Three of those events are pre-allocated to ballet and classical concerts. Union leaders and Benedict can forget gathering their faithful there.

If any kind of danger - not even clear and present - poses itself, the city's matrons feel duty-bound to eliminate it, whether the potential victim might be a dog-walker, an impressionable baby or even a square of sod. Makes you grateful the Leaning Tower of Pisa is not in Manhattan. Look, it's not straight. Demolish it at once before someone gets hurt.

Too much publicity?

An edgy new magazine aimed at young, urbanite blue-staters called Radar hits newsstands today. Well, almost new. Its editor, Maer Roshan, formerly of the defunct Talk, put out a couple of issues at the end of 2003 to considerable praise, before he ran out of cash. This time he has backing from Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman and financier Jeffrey Epstein. "Better to have two billionaires than one," he joked in his 23rd Street office one day last week.

Maer expressed concern that the rebirth of the bi-monthly was getting just a little too much attention. He would prefer a more beneath-the-Radar launch. Particularly unsettling, he said, was the daily teasing by Gawker.com, a self-consciously clever (rather like Radar) internet blog founded in Manhattan by Nick Denton, formerly of The Financial Times. The jabs at Roshan always came with a sarcastic headline, "Radar, the Greatest American Magazine Launch".

Though I know Roshan vaguely and Denton slightly less vaguely, I was unable to figure out whether this war was phoney or real. But somebody apparently was taking Denton's campaign to heart. Fast forward to a party for Radar last Wednesday and the moment when Denton moved beside Roshan for a let's-be-friends photo moment. Out of the blue lurched a burly fellow smashing a custard pie in Denton's face, whereupon Denton, clearly taken back, poured red wine over Roshan's head.

Boys, really. So it is war, apparently. Or maybe this was just a pre-orchestrated stunt for the kind of media attention Roshan is allegedly so afraid of.