Postcard from Gotham

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Over the week or so that I had been in New York a number of things struck me:

Hybrid vehicles

American cities typically use Ford Crown Victoria saloons as their taxis and their police cars. The Ford Crown Victoria is basically a land barge: a big low-stressed petrol engine in the front and a surprising cramped interior with a long shallow boot. Its suspension wallows in the smallest potholes and even on a straight road provides you with the sensation of sailing on gentle waves as the it moves slowly up and down.

Cab companies and police departments like them as the car body sits on a frame that provides the strength to the vehicle, so they are easier to repair and if you blow out a windscreen you suddenly don’t lose structural rigidity of the vehicle.

Ford Escape hybrid taxi

Things are changing however. Many of the cab drivers are now driving Ford Escape hybrid SUVs which are much more compact and have more useful space than the Crown Victoria. They also use Toyota and Nissan hybrid saloons. I saw buses which were hybrid powered. It isn’t only public transport, discussions with my car-owning colleagues showed that hybrids were ‘the evoked set’ for new car purchases.

There is a lot of buzz around hybrids because of the price of fuel and the need for smarter use of fossil fuels. Also there doesn’t seem to be the same history of diesel vehicles that Europe has, consequently quite modest gains in fuel efficiency have a major impact on public perception.

A combination of cash for clunkers and Toyota marketing seems to have moved the debate on from the total carbon footprint of a vehicle to pure fuel efficiency despite the case that may be made for converting an older vehicle to biodiesel.

Food miles

A hot topic over here at the moment is food quality and where food is from. There are apparently farmers markets all over New York and some of the hottest restaurants specialise in serving food made from local in-season ingredients. Whilst it is a trend in the UK, it seems to have much more traction over here. From what I heard, this seems to be a backlash against food miles and big agri-business which has bought up so much of the US farms.


All this from the country that gave us the Big Mac, Squeezy Cheese and Twinkies.


CVS Pharmacy

I couldn’t sleep that well the first night that I arrived in New York and watched a couple of hours of Jackie Gleason’s classic sit-com series The Honeymooners. In the midst of this throw-back from the golden age of broadcasting were advertisements for Viagra featuring an adulterated version of Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas.  It was an annoyingly catchy soundtrack to a debate which is raging here at the moment on whether the US should move to a government-funded and managed healthcare system.

Whilst most people are acknowledging that the poorest in society need to be taken care of it is quite strange hearing some of the more libertarian arguments being bandied around at the moment. This is playing out in the midst of a background of stimulus packages that haven’t left the US economy feeling very stimulated and anger against government-funded banks who are sticking it to homeowners.

A major part of the debate revolves around how the gap between rich and poor people has widened and the opportunity to climb socially and economically has diminished over the past four decades.

Personally, if they go ahead with it, I would recommend that they study the Japanese health system rather than the NHS or the Irish healthcare system. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Manhattan has become too nice

I was last in Manhattan in early 1991, it was a completely different place.  The region around Time Square was a cess pit of humanity and you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a low-level drug dealer. Move forward 18 years and the city has changed. The pedestrians are mellower even during trying summer weather. Time Square is cleaned up and the city is going through gentrification.

Time Square

Don’t get me wrong there are still crazy homeless people and the seedier side of life if you want to find it, but it isn’t as obvious as downtown San Francisco.

What this also means is that there is less room for the heart of a city: artists, musicians and culture. Venues like CBGBs have closed down and the music scene has moved out of Manhattan to Williamsburg in Brooklyn according to my musician friends.

Psychics & Astrologers

One type of business that does not seem to have suffered from the gentrification of Manhattan is psychics and astrologers. I have never noticed this in other US cities that I have visited, but there is a plethora of store fronts and offices in Manhattan catering to psychic services. I would have thought that the granola and Birkenstock yoga bunny brigade of San Francisco would be a sucker for psychics and astrologers, but apparently not nearly as much as Manhattanites. I had people giving me leaflets on the street, even when I took a cab to escape these pamphleteers the in-cab television advertising service was pushing text-a-psychic premium SMS.


But there maybe something in it, my colleague mentioned that they never gave him a leaflet presumably because they realised through their psychic powers that he wasn’t interested. Funnily enough by the end of the week there, they stopped leafleting me as well.