Over the years, I have been lucky enough to spend the holidays in various parts of the globe. Of all the world’s major cities, I sometimes think London enters into the festive spirit with the greatest gusto. But then I return to New York, and conclude that it is really the Big Apple that puts on the finest show of all.
I always try to pay a quick visit to Manhattan in December: to do some seasonal shopping; to try a new restaurant; to soak up the atmosphere of celebration. All of the obvious sights continue to bring me as much pleasure as when I first saw them: the tree at Rockefeller Center; the skaters at Wollman Rink; the lavishly decorated windows on Fifth and Madison avenues. But even though this continuity is gratifying, on recent trips to New York I have also been struck by just how rapidly the city is changing. The trauma of September 2001, followed seven years later by the financial collapse, might have had a debilitating effect, but in many ways, the opposite seems to be true.
Some of the credit must go to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who in 2002 appointed Adrian Benepe as the city’s parks commissioner. Although his most widely publicized project has been the creation of the High Line — a mile-long urban park constructed on an old elevated railroad track running from Gansevoort Street through Chelsea to 30th Street — Benepe has presided over a transformation of the city’s open spaces. Bloomberg also appointed Janette Sadik-Khan to be commissioner of the Department of Transportation, and she has been responsible for laying out pedestrian plazas on major streets, most notably Broadway at Times Square.
While doing a little research for my recent trip, I was struck by the many cultural projects currently under way. For example, the famed Public Theater, founded by Joseph Papp in 1954 and located in the former Astor Library on Lafayette Street in the East Village, completed a $40 million refurbishment in October. But the most important artistic development is doubtless the new Whitney Museum of American Art, facing the High Line on Gansevoort Street and scheduled to open in 2015.
Although most of my recommended hotels are still north of 55th Street and east of Central Park, as the city evolves, areas that were once of marginal interest have become real draws. The transformation of Lower Manhattan began with the disappearance of industry. In the ’60s and ’70s, former warehouses in SoHo were taken over by artists, but as the area became progressively more desirable, many of the studios and galleries were squeezed out, moving first to Chelsea, then to Brooklyn. Today, SoHo’s cobblestone streets are awash with high-end boutiques, housed within the majestic 19th-century cast- iron buildings for which the area is famous. Fortunately, some landmarks of the original bohemia remain, notably Fanelli Café, once a favorite artists’ haunt and still good for a glass of wine and sustaining pub food.