What do New Yorkers make of the changes? New York-born travel writer Doug Lansky reveals all in his exclusive interview with Wanderlust
When do you think the Big Apple began to lose its iconic shine?
It started with Giuliani. He was mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001 and he’s kind of credited with cleaning it up. He set the whole process in motion.
First he got rid of the squeegee guys. Every time you stopped at a red light these guys would come out and wash your window. Trouble was, your window was usually cleaner before they started washing it.
They’d spit on your window, throw some disgusting water on it, wipe it off – then they’d want a dollar for it. You were afraid that they’d scratch your car or do something mean to you if you didn’t pay. Everyone was annoyed by it.
So he got rid of them. I don’t know what he did with them. Maybe he threw them in prison. Nobody really knows.
He also cleaned up Times Square. Times Square used to be a really sleazy area with lots of X-rated shops. There weren’t really prostitutes walking around but you could buy drugs on the street there.
There were also a lot more homeless people living on the streets in cardboard boxes then. I don’t know where he sent them – probably to Pittsburgh or something.
So yeah, Giuliani got the ball rolling. New Yorkers started complaining. They both appreciated what he was doing but also felt that they were losing the Gothamness of Gotham City.
Is it getting worse?
Now everything feels like another nail in the coffin. Not only do taxi drivers know where they’re going, they all have touch screen GPS on the back of the seat so you can follow the cab on a map. I mean, what are they going to do next? Take the squeaking away from the Subway?
These things are what make New York New York. But, at the same time, if you were going to clean up, that’s what you’d tackle first.
Surely New York is a nicer place to live?
It’s a mixed bag. You’re always striving to make it a nicer place. But there’s something nice about hailing a cab and seeing an older one come along. Then you get in and it smells a bit funky and the air-conditioning isn’t working.
When you see it pull up you get all excited and say ‘Oh, it’s an old cab!’. Then you get in and it’s not as comfortable and you realise that you don’t like it quite as much as the new one.
How do you feel about the new yellow minivan cabs?
The cool cabs were the old Checker Taxis. They were the real New York Yellow Cab. When they phased those out that upset people.
The drivers these days seem to know where they’re going. But every once in a while you’ll get some real old crusty driver who’s been doing it for 20 years. You’ll say I want to go to this restaurant at such and such. You’ll start telling him the address and he’ll cut you off saying, ‘Hey! I know the place. Shutup!’ And you smile and go, ‘Nice! A real New York taxi driver’.
Tourism is built on icons and New York is losing its taxi icon. It feels like it’s losing its soul.
As a New Yorker, how does that make you feel?
I’m kind of torn. I dislike it – and at the same time I secretly enjoy it. When I take my kids down into the Subway I feel I have to explain it wasn’t always this clean or that Times Square didn’t always have a Quicksilver store. It used to be funky.
I say it like it was the good old days. But do I really want to be taking my kids to Times Square when it was filled with X-rated shops? Not really!
I wish there was a bit more city planning, a kind of middle road. A lot of places that have old districts put a lot of effort into them – they look nice, but retain some of their old character. New York should do that.
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