Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gangs of New York

Its been a couple of weeks since we got back from New York and with a couple of hurricanes getting in the way have only now got round to writing about it.

I do like New York, its a great world city.  Only on Friday I was reading an opinion piece suggesting that because of its even greater diversity, London has just regained top slot in the race for the #1 city of the world, a place held for the last 50 or so years by New York.  I don't disagree with that of course (being partial) but that still doesn't do anything to detract from NY's allure for me.

We arrived on a Monday in late October around 11 am so I organised a walking tour of lower Manhattan titled after the movie of the same name that is the title of this post.  That movie was a historical classic, and of a time when the city (and country) was changing from an old world colony to a new world polyglot.  Before this period (the 1860's) America was all about old world colonists.  After it was all about immigration, massive growth and a really new world country.  The Civil War being the devastating catalyst for speeding things up even more.

So I found Alex.

It was a Living Social thing that gave me the idea but none were available so the fallback of Google found Alex (see website  Timing was right so we headed out immediately and found the church assembly point AND the oldest pizzeria right near by... called Lombardi's and opened in 1905 (see website here).  The pizzas weren't as great as in Chicago or St. Louis but still pretty nice and as it was an icon, the place was jammed.

Lombardi's Pizzeria

However Alex didn't show up at the allotted time.

So I called him and he gave me a whole bunch of stuff about how his 3 different online calendars weren't working properly and said "sorry" an enormous amount of times ... and then said he could be there in 30 minutes.

It gave us the chance to consider where we were.  Its beyond Greenwich Village down to the unnumbered cross streets and south of Houston (which is one of the subway stops nearby) --- incidently Houston is pronounced HOW-STON not WHO-STON because of its Dutch ancestry and the spelling change from HOO-STON which in Dutch pronunciation is HOW-STON.  OK?  Well that's what Alex told us anyway.

It was a brilliant tour and it all comes down to Alex, a young 20-something with an outrageous French accent who conducts tours in English (father is English), French (mother is French), Italian and German (no idea about the last two).

I am so impressed by young people who have a vision and guts to start up their own business and give it a go.  (Alex incidentally plays jazz in a band and that night had a gig but despite this was very casual about continuing on and on).

He was also very knowledgeable (or at least it seemed that way to me) and had a high speed delivery that made me feel breathless and certainly obviated the need and opportunity to ask questions.

So onto the tour, well it all takes place around Five Points, a part of NY above the financial district but below where the rich folks lived.  Once you came off the boats from wherever, you ended up in Five Points.  There were Italian, German, Polish, Russian, you name it nationalities but predominantly the Irish.  They all hated one another but it was only the Irish who hated themselves too -- "You're from Cork, you B*&*^*&".  That sort of thing.  So there were umpteen gangs that were initially set up for self-protection but soon morphed into criminality as well.  So 'protection' was not only from the other nationalities but also from your own gang.

Five Points in the old days -- called so because it was at the junction of 5 streets

Take the tour yourself to find out all the good stuff.  There is so much I could write for ages but I loved the story about the firemen the most.  As all the tenement buildings were essentially wooden construction, fires were frequent and devastating.  Hence the need for firemen.  However the gangs owned the fire stations (which were usually the gathering points for the gangs) and were a good profit centre.  The city paid only the first crew that got to a fire so there was a race (and often battles) to fires.  Also enterprising entrepreneurs may even set the fires and then set an upturned barrel on the nearest hydrant so no competing fire brigade could attend the fire.

One of the old fire stations

These days 1 Police Precinct, City Hall and the Criminal Courts is on top of what was Five Points -- that says something!  Clearly it was so troublesome and after the multitude of riots, the worst being the 1863 version covered in the movie that the city fathers felt that bulldozing the whole place was the best solution.

Five Points today

We ended up after more than 3 hours pretty weary at the Staten Island Ferry right at sunset so felt that cocktails and dinner would be the best way ahead.

This we managed at Harry's in the financial district (see website here), a great steak house that made wonderful Negroni's, a personal favorite!

Tuesday was meant to be our shoppping day as everyone is on sale in New York, it seems all the time these days however after dragging ourselves around the 5th Avenue Uniqlo store, we ran out of energy so decided to go to the movies instead, passing the ticket office on Times Square along the way where we bought tickets for Les Miserables for that night (incidentally we made the movies too!).

I saw Les Miz in London 30 years ago and it was pretty much the same show, pretentious, dark and Jean Valjean having a pretty hard time of things, year after year.  Victor Hugo himself apparently didn't think much of either Marius or Cosette so constructed very superficial characters for them.  However Epernine and Gavroche were great characters and received strong, if brief coverage.  It must be difficult though for any actor to make any part his or her own after so many years.

I won't go into detail about my business meetings but will note that this year's restaurant choice was another simply magnificent steak house in old New York.  Thank goodness, they keep on coming.

By the way, do you know why they call New York the big apple?  Apparently it stems from Harlem jazzmen who in conversation always referred to getting a gig as getting "a big apple" so at some point along the way, those jazzmen's slang went viral.

So Big Apple and of course Alex, thanks.  We had a great time!

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