Unfurl a giant map of the United States, say the size of your living room, and you’ll barely be able to make out the island of Manhattan. In fact, once you’ve located the tiny grid layout you only have to move your finger left or right a few blocks for it very quickly to become the bits of New York you’ll never want to visit.
So, what most of us mean when we say ‘New York’ is actually a few central streets in the lower half of this little granite island in this Atlantic archipelago they call New York City. Getting your head around this is the first step in understanding the crazily condensed, capitalist Galapagos that is Manhattan.
The big revelation for me, after living here for a couple of months, was that Manhattan is a actually a machine: a machine for living with a much more exposed and well lubricated mechanism than other cities I know. If you have a decent job you will probably earn more than your European counterparts, and once an enormous chunk of it is taken by the landlord, you spend it making your life run smoothly.
Firstly, no one cooks here. No one. You either eat out or ‘take out’. Stoves are for reheating exclusively. And everyone gets everything ‘done’: eyebrows, nails, shoes shined, necks massaged, hair blow-dried, dogs washed and walked, sheets pressed, supplies delivered. So now the famous grid makes total sense: Up and down the avenues for the big fashion brands and department stores and sideways are the streets for the nail bars, salons, laundries, framers,
tailors, delis and restaurants, all ready to deliver within the hour. You’re never more than three feet away from a trolley or a dolly in this city as they rattle along dodging the shoppers.
Try explaining the UK’s ‘click and collect’ concept to a New Yorker and they’ll look at you like you just suggested a spot of Morris dancing.
What drives this city is the food and whatever happens here takes off around the world. The casual dining revolution began in Manhattan and you can see why. The process of bringing a restaurant to market in New York is beautifully Darwinian: you literally bring your concept to one of the many food markets (Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, Madison Square Eats, Broadway Bites) or get yourself a food truck.
All the cool food brands start this way so you don’t really need big financial backing to get a name for yourself like you would in London, for example. One caveat though: you need to be good, really good. New Yorkers are the most discerning customers on the planet (and for discerning read difficult, fussy and swift to complain). Get it right, on the other hand, and they’ll tell everyone they know how they discovered you.
The result is an entire city that is constantly fine tuning itself and it seems to work. Most of the time, service is good and the quality of food exceptional. Everyone is an expert here and if you want to succeed you’d better be damn good and you’d better be a specialist. Average generalists do not survive.
New York then, is a template for other world cities. As we all become more urban, more travelled, more discerning, more difficult, as our cities become busier and more condensed, just like New Yorkers, we will want the very best the planet has to offer. And we’ll want it delivered. Manhattan for all its excess shows us the way: most of the time the machine actually works.