Just try to imagine it: four years of war, death, hunger, and occupation, followed by a vicious civil war with street fighting that left Athens bullet-pocked and in ruins. Then, out of the blue, boarding a TWA super constellation in first class, deluxe beds and top culinary service included, with stops in Rome, Paris, London, Shannon, Gander, Boston, and, finally, New York, all within 24 hours. For an 11-year-old, a Wizard of Oz-type of eye opener. But far more wonders were to come.
After passing customs with ease due to diplomatic pull, the ride into the city still resonates and is indelibly etched in my mind and imagination. Seeing Manhattan from across the bay for the first time was like, I suppose, Dante’s first meeting Beatrice, except I had never heard of them back then. According to my father, I stayed open-mouthed and silent, for the first and last time in my life. There they were, the skyscrapers rising towards the sky and representing everything America meant to me, freedom and power, the one and only shining city on the hill, as someone was to describe it 40 years later. I still get goose pimples when I think of it.
My love affair with that mythic city has stayed the course, although those who run the place have done their best to ruin my illusions. We went first to the Plaza Hotel, which abuts the filigree of Central Park, a green oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle of wide boulevards full of beautiful cars and well-dressed people. We then went for a drive down Fifth Avenue, seeing the limestone monument to wealth, Rockefeller Center, and the silvery arcs of the Chrysler Building. Then on to the wonder of wonders, once the highest edifice in the world, the Empire State Building, followed by Broadway and Times Square.
That night, looking out from my bedroom window at the plaza, I watched, unable to sleep with excitement, as the RCA sign in Rockefeller Center blinked on and off, in red and blue colors. I had entered a magic kingdom, and sleep was the last thing on my mind. My first ever experience with an American chocolate milkshake also didn’t help. I lay awake wanting more.
As the years went by—I had been sent away to boarding school almost immediately—the city remained the mythical place where everything was glamorous and beautiful, and the people were all rich and sophisticated. Eventually I joined the cocktail parties and lunches at 21, met some of the beautiful women who lived there, observed the city of bright avenues and mysterious side streets, of soaring towers and intimate corners, where people did exciting and romantic things.
But I also grew up. The 1960s brought the great unwashed and civil disobedience, the ’70s made crime and the city one and the same. Homeless people and drug dealers became ubiquitous, the well-dressed crowds I witnessed as a child having left for the suburbs. El Morocco and the Stork club, where I cut my teeth as a man-about-town, closed, replaced by huge airport-like spaces with very loud noises that passed for music. Drugs were openly sold. Beautiful old houses were torn down and replaced by glass monsters that were as inscrutable as the people who lived inside them, mostly foreigners with dodgy money. People now dressed in sweat clothes, with huge sneakers on their feet, and carried large bags. Stores that sold very expensive clothes and trinkets replaced clean grocery shops and tiny shoe-shine parlors. Drug stores and their counters, where young people once met and flirted, became a thing of the past.
And yet. Sometimes I walk around the park and study the urban architecture that drew on the decorative arts of previous eras. The Upper West and East Side have resisted the commercial invasion, their Beaux Arts buildings still lording it, resisting modernism and functionalism, the two worst enemies of classical design. Sure, for some of us each new tall building in residential areas is another oppressor, banishing the sun, crushing brownstones, and barricading views, but the beaux arts apartment houses still line and dominate the upper side of Manhattan, and Greenwich Village has dodged the bullet of Robert Moses and has remained the way it once was, except for the prices.
And late at night, returning from a downtown party and riding up Park Avenue, I can almost hear a Cole Porter tune and almost see Fred and Ginger dancing near the park. Perhaps it’s the alcohol, or that other drug, nostalgia, but the city’s still got it, especially late at night when the streets are empty and I’m heading uptown, where once upon a time I couldn’t go to sleep looking at the RCA sign blinking at Rockefeller Center.
Taki Theodoracopulos is a founding editor of The American Conservative.