Small wonder this city never sleeps

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The Independent Online

Visit New York this spring, and you will see that the city is its old cocky self. Who would guess that it is not even four years since the horrors at the World Trade Center? If new construction is a sign of urban self-confidence, then gutsy Gotham has more than recovered its briefly shattered poise.

The cranes and the scaffolds blot out the sunlight wherever you walk. Even 21st Street, where I live, is an obstacle course of building activity. The Gramercy Park Hotel, two blocks away, is shrouded in metal as developers tear out its guts in a drastic renovation. A little further along, a Gothic-style office building on Park Avenue South has been rudely decapitated on its way to becoming luxury apartments.

And so it goes all over town. Already sprouted are the shiny spires of the new Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle. Soon to be completed is the bathroom-blue monolith across from Bloomingdale's that will be headquarters to Bloomberg News. Projects on the drawing-board include a huge new stadium on the West Side and, of course, the new 1,776ft skyscraper at Ground Zero itself.

All this is good news, of course. The Manhattan skyline, so cruelly disfigured, is reasserting itself. And I suppose this burst of construction might impart some recovered sense of security on those of us who live here and must navigate this bedlam of banging and welding and concrete-pouring, day after day. New York has got its mojo back - and we can all sleep soundly again.

This is clearly what our political leaders, notably Mayor Michael Bloomberg, want us to think. In all the frenzied promotion by the city for its right to play host to the 2012 Olympics, no one dared ask the obvious question. We have been attacked once, so are we really the best choice for the games?

I do not necessarily subscribe to the doomsday school who say that erecting new skyscrapers in the craters of the old New York is inviting the terrorists to strike again. But who really thinks that New York can relax? Not me, which is why any sudden and unfamiliar noise in the middle of the night - recently, it has been the banging of steel snowploughs on Tarmac - still makes me sit up in bed and, briefly, think the worst.

Occasionally, reminders of why we should remain anxious leak through officialdom's veneer of self-assurance. Pass through Penn Station, and you can't miss the bored-looking National Guardsmen loafing in the hallways, loaded rifles slung over their shoulders. They are there in case the terrorists show up. Just the other day, I steered the wrong way going into the Midtown Tunnel towards Queens only to find myself waved down by a similarly armed officer who crossly enquired why I had driven into a lane reserved for the random inspection of vans and lorries that may be carrying hidden explosives.

It took a Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, to reveal earlier this month, meanwhile, that sketches of Grand Central Station had been found on a computer disk belonging to one of the Madrid-railway bombing suspects. No cause for alarm, our police chief Ray Kelly assured us, adding that no extra steps would be taken to tighten security at the city's busiest subway and rail hub. Well, if he says so.

Then there was the report this week, in the Long Island newspaper Newsday, of plans by officials from a federal agency called the Urban Dispersion Program to release gas from Madison Square Garden in order to monitor how quickly it would spread through the surrounding midtown neighbourhoods. The exercise - no one will say whether it has even taken place yet - is not particularly scary in itself. The gas, called PFT, or perfluorocarbon tracer, is harmless, but it is not hard to guess what the purpose is. They want to see how much time they will have to evacuate us all if the day comes when something less innocuous is released in our midst.

So, by all means be impressed by the hubbub when you visit, and congratulate this fine city for getting its game back. New York is throwing up buildings again like there was no tomorrow - or, rather, like there will be endless tomorrows. But deep down, none of us who live here are taking anything for granted.

My litter bin floweth over

It has been well over a year since Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to begin installing public toilets around town, and they haven't arrived yet. Still we must creep past the counter at McDonald's hoping that they won't see us as we sneak into their loos without ordering any food.

But don't despair. Behold New York's new generation of litter bins. I am reliably informed that prototypes are already in place in the financial district. We still have the old wire-mesh variety on my block, which permanently overflow. All that will end with the new bins, and not just because they have a letter-box design, which means that what goes in never pops out again. Here is the funky part. These are solar-powered bins. When they are full, a sensor activates a compactor that squashes whatever is inside down to the size of a Weetabix box.

Bins that can swallow more don't need to be emptied so often. But that may be bad news. Only a fraction of the debris outside - from blowing newspapers to whole pieces of discarded furniture - is ever placed in, or even near, the litter bins in the first place. So if the city's dustmen are to come even less often than they do now, I wonder how I will even get out the front door in the morning.