You know that part in Taxi Driver when Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle character utters those lines about wishing that "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." That eerily memorable bit from Martin Scorsese's landmark 1976 movie captured a totally different time in the history of New York City - a time when the city was bankrupt and grimy. It was a time when the Bronx, which looked like bombed out Berlin (circa WWII), was visited by Ronald Reagan like a state leader visiting a war torn faraway land - except it was one of the five boroughs of America's main city.
It was a distant time that could be a hundred years ago, not just a few decades, considering just how very much New York City has transformed since then. Today the midtown Times Square area of New York City (along & surrounding 42nd Street on Manhattan's West Side) is a radically different place than the one it was back in the mid-seventies; the area that was so effectively captured in Taxi Driver as Travis Bickle's cab crawled along in slo-mo, taking in every nuance of the rundown, scuzzy and scary area that was rampant with X-rated movie theaters, hookers, junkies, pimps, and street-wise con men lurking on every corner, ready to rip off gullible marks.
Today that same stretch of 42nd Street and Times Square is another world altogether, with the cheap eateries and strip clubs and X rated movie theaters replaced by back to back chain outlets like Starbucks, McDonalds, and of course the Disney stores -- hence the so-called Disneyfication of New York City that has slowly come about since the nineties -- a current trend in the US that is by no means limited to NYC.
Like many people, I have very mixed feelings about the shiny, safe, new New York City versus the old, run-down, dilapidated, crime-ridden one that for all its faults seemed to be rich with passion and personality, not to mention all the art. After all, it was the New York City that gave us hip-hop, punk rock, no-wave, graffiti and so much more great modern art. But in the 70's and 80's things got really bad in New York City. Murder and all other crimes were way up and morale and pride in the Big Apple were way down. Then came Mayor Rudy Giuliani (followed by the current mayor, Mike Bloomberg), who went about systematically cleaning up the city with a military-like, zero-tolerance approach to any form of deviant behavior. And it worked -- for better or for worse. Today, crime is down, way down, and New York is a safe city to wander at all hours.
But gone along with all the crime (including all the great graffiti) is the soul and old vibe of New York City. Two weeks ago in NYC as I walked along the squeaky clean theme park-like tourist trap that is the Times Square of today, I thought about Travis Bickle and pondered what if he were to come back today: would he be equally disgusted by the shiny generic anywhere-USA appearance of 42nd Street to the degree that he'd again wish that a real rain would come and wash away the ugliness of the Disneyfication of New York City?
And in a distant way my wish was granted when just then a storm blew in and brought with it a heavy downfall of snow that covered the whole city in a beautiful white blanket -- possibly the last snow of the year before Spring would begin. And while the snow only temporarily redeemed the ugliness of the cleansed Times Square area, I was reminded that the one part of New York City that is always beautiful-- especially in the snow-- is Central Park, which is less than a mile north of Times Square. So I headed over there with friends where we took pictures of the expansive city park (as seen below).
Running two and a half miles in length and half a mile in width, Central Park is truly the jewel of Manhattan and is perhaps the one part of NYC that has gained the most from the city-wide gentrification of the past two decades -- thanks mostly to the non-profit Central Park Conservancy which was founded in 1980 with the explicit goal of restoring the park to its former majestic glory. And this it has accomplished. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted * and Calvert Vaux, Central Park, which was unveiled in 1876 and took 16 years to construct, is today as breathtakingly beautiful as it was back when it first opened and well worth exploring if you ever go to New York City -- no matter what time of year. For more information on the park visit the official website.
* Frederick Law Olmsted is also responsible for designing the UC Berkeley and Stanford campuses. Interestingly he was also invited to design what would become Golden Gate Park but passed on the opportunity of transforming the then (Gold Rush era) wild sand-dune strewn stretch of Western San Francisco calling it an "impossible" task to even think of undertaking. William Hammond Hall disagreed and took on the job of designing Golden Gate Park which today is another one of the most beautiful city parks in the US.