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Essay

Big Apple's Had One Too Many Close-Ups for Its Own Good

April 28, 1999|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like an aging bohemian who's finally traded in the garret, the threadbare sweater and the tubercular cough for a day job with bennies, New York City is feeling a bit defensive. And not unreasonably.

The back-room nattering that began with the Disney-led cleanup of Times Square has swelled to a cacophony of complaint as the economy booms, the tourists pour in, and even the East Village throws a black cashmere V-neck over its piercings and smiles for the cameras.

Charges of commercialism, capitalism, suburbanization, fascism (well, the trains do run on time) and plain old bad taste fly from every quarter--urban diva Fran Leibowitz has reportedly washed her hands of it and fled to the country.

The new New York has been accused of turning into Disneyland, the Mall of America, New Jersey and even (oh, the horror, the horror) Los Angeles.

The last of which, of course, is just wishful thinking. New York will never be anything but New York until it gets rid of all those pesky New Yorkers. And this, as the discontented discourse proves, it clearly hasn't done; New Yorkers are the only non-French-speaking people who would complain because their city has gotten better.

And it has. To one who lived there during the late '80s, a trip to the city is a lesson in envious nostalgia--like going home only to find that the moment you moved out, your parents ditched the two-bedroom, aluminum-sided rancher and bought a two-story Colonial with a/c, walk-in closets and a big-screen TV in the guest room.

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My outraged voyage of discovery began upon sliding into the cab at the airport ("Flat rates? Seat belts?"), reaching near hysteria at 42nd Street, where it was tough to call the more marked improvement--the lack of pimps, proselytizers and porn theaters on Times Square or the crack-dealer-free loveliness of Bryant Park. Anyone who would--as many of the die-hard do--consider these changes a loss of "romance" in the city must also look back with longing on the days of typhoid quarantines and child labor.

But Los Angeles it ain't.

For one thing, the sunlight, like the pizza, is available only in slices, wedged between buildings. The sky, likewise, relies on a scarcity-equals-value economy--one stops and cranes for glimpses like a star-struck tourist at a Westwood premiere. And with the efficiency of a 19th century Irish tenant farmer's cottage, the city's construction keeps it cold and drafty in the winter, hot and suffocating in the summer--it's no wonder Limerick-tenement survivor Frank McCourt likes New York.

The city is cleaner these days, but there's nothing you can do about the noise, and, actually, who would want to? The honk-honk-blat-whistle-screech that runs like a river through the banks of glass and stone is an urban anthem, stirring the pulse and propelling one ever forward with a sense of import and urgency. The relative silence of downtown L.A. seems a bit eerie by comparison.

And New York still smells the same. So very much its own, and so unlike Los Angeles that judging solely by olfactory standards, it is hard to believe they are both cities in the same nation.

Los Angeles, so much more prone than upright and actually possessing flora, has a wide variety of aroma-therapeutic topknots--sea salt, eucalyptus, jasmine, rosemary, pine--to counter the gritty, hot, smoggy brew of a coastal desert town. In New York, the smells are all man-made, but as evocative as a newly opened box of Crayolas: the burning meat and sugar of street vendors' carts; the wet clouds of steam that taste like an old nickel; the sudden ripe bursts of orange and tangerine from the open stands of Korean groceries; and the sudden breath of the subway, a hot miasma of rubber and oil and urine and sweat, rolling from ubiquitous entrances.

Then there are the people. Certainly the people one encounters--the waiters, the pedestrians, the token booth operators--seem to be nicer than they used to be, but that's a relative comparison, like saying the White Army was nicer than the Communists.

But there are just so darn many of them, these people, filling the sidewalks, bursting out of the coffee shops, packing the public transportation.

Yes, numerically, Los Angeles has a larger population. Yet, at any given time, most of them are graciously stuck in traffic somewhere, or tucked away in a pitch meeting, or stripping down at the beach, or otherwise occupied by countless meaningful tasks that keep them out of each other's way. The difference between New York and Los Angeles is not the weather or the attitude, it's the number of times strangers bump into you. It's so much easier to think that people are nice if you simply do not come into much contact with them.

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But the biggest thing that L.A. has over New York is mystique. As a wise man remarked when his traveling companion hesitated on a quest for Balducci's: "You keep thinking you know where you are because you've seen it so often in the movies."

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