New York’s in a Dallas state of mind

I WAS DRIVING along Northwest Highway in late August of 1982, and things were terrible, lifestyle-wise. Having arrived in Dallas from New York City to work for the Morning News, I was looking for a place to live and coming head-to-head with adult communities. It looked as if I was going to end up in one of those vast, neo-arcadian singles complexes that carpet North Dallas like Hill Country bluebonnets.

Then Preston Village, a molecule by Dallas adult community standards, came into view. The facades were real brick. There was a swimming pool big enough to swim in. The buildings recalled an earlier century, say 1958, when life was slower and you had time to smell the grass, at least before May burned it all away. That looks like Queens, I thought. I want to live there. Insecure in new surroundings, I sought the familiar and moved into what turned out to be Dallas’ oldest and possibly least-fashionable apartment complex because it reminded me of home.

FOR A COUPLE of weeks I had been experiencing the welcome of a world class city. Pioneers, I thought, must have felt like this. Everything was new. Everywhere in Dallas, people were building world class stuff. They were building stuff on top of stuff, which struck me as world classiness defined: new, and more of it, preferably on top of something old. I had no way of knowing this was the Sunbelt ethos and not peculiar to Dallas. I only knew it felt exactly opposite of what I’d grown up with in New York, and that seemed exactly the point.

Two and a half years later I was visiting New York, only to discover that now it, too, was into world class stuff.

Picture Fifth Avenue in mid-December. The sky is frozen, the holiday shoppers are befurred, the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center is twinkling, the 57th Street macro-snowflake’s aglow.

I saw the snowflake that ate Fifth Avenue for the first time from a taxi hurtling north on Madison Avenue through the IBM/AT&T canyon at 56th; I angled left as we passed 57th. There it was, suspended over the intersection-a preposterous bit of stop-action in the middle of the seasonal commotion. You couldn’t see west of Fifth Avenue. From Central Park’s eastern perimeter, you couldn’t see south beyond 57th Street.

Call it a world class snowflake-one article of evidence that as New York City recovered from the fiscal crisis of a decade past, it set out to become a world class city. It’s about time. In fact, I took comfort, returning East permanently this spring, to find the sweet sorrow of parting somewhat softened by the insistent evidence of my hometown’s effort to achieve world classiness. If you missed the giant snowflake, take heart-it’s back this year, dubbed, rest assured, the traditional 57th Street snowflake.

Cities around the country, many of them older than Dallas, have been trying for some time to become world class. They beg Tiffany & Co. to build a branch, their newspapers open bureaus in obscure South American cities, their libraries are designed by I.M. Pei. The thinking behind this, one could reasonably assume, was that these cities wanted to be New York, which never self-consciously thoughtof itself as a world class city because, presumably, it was.

WELL, GO FIGURE it. While Dallas was trying to become New York, New York was pulling a fast one. It knew which way the wind was blowing. While everyone else was getting Tiffany, New York was getting Brookstone.

New York City wants to be Dallas. It used to want to be London, but that all changed when the pound went to hell and Rizzoli replicated itself in NorthPark. Take Trump Tower, also at Fifth between 56th and 57th. Trump Tower is New York trying to be Dallas. Here is the world market in pink marble-five vertiginous stories of it, storefront to storefront, floor to atrium skylight. We’re talking chunky little brass 7s next to the elevators, lighted display cases topped by mock-Chippendale mini-pediments: in one shop window, a rhinestone-studded ammo belt complete with silver bullets, in another, rows of shirts, starched collars unfolded and pointing like scullers pressed against the marmoreal current.

Across the street, newly face-lifted Bergdorf Goodman, purse-proud broker of Turnbull and Asser shirts and the serious rocks of Van Cleef and Arpels, glowers, altar-like, the newest temple of consumerism and a ringer for the Dallas Galleria’s Marshall Field’s, even if the former fails slightly to achieve the brazen sanctimony of the latter. Still, compare Bergdorfs with, say, the humble, calm permanence of Saks Fifth Avenue, (Saks! humble!) seven blocks south or, a bit farther, with B. Altman & Co.- whose flagships are architectural whispers despite the fact that each takes up nearly a full city block. Whisper? Skip it, Jack. Bergdorfs new facade is unabashed Belt Line bravado in tune with the current iconography of world class consumerism, cajoling rather than whispering and making no bones about its ambitions. And, of course, it’s no coincidence that Bergdorf’s is a cog in Carter Hawley Hale, which owns- you guessed it-Neiman-Marcus. The new Bergdorf’s differs only in the matter of scale from the storefront establishment in my West Side neighborhood, whose window boasts the scrawled legend “World Class Dry Cleaning” Scotch-taped in the lower right-hand corner.

YOU JUST CANT take world classiness for granted anymore. There was a time when a laundry in New York City was assumed world class simply because it was a laundry in New York City, but that time is gone. New York City is learning the lesson revealed to Dallas in 1912, when Adolphus Busch’s beer family opened a knock-’em-dead hotel downtown that was a cool 15 stories higher than anything else around: You don’t earn world classiness. You appropriate it.

Look at the Marriott Marquis, nee Port-man, Hotel, the concrete platypus on the west side of Broadway between 45th and 46th streets. Three legitimate theaters haunted with legends of the Great White Way-the Morosco, the Helen Hayes and the Bijou-were bulldozed to make way for a high-rise luxury hotel and a 500-seat auditorium, neither of which will fill any particular current or forseeable need.

Unresponsive to anything surrounding it. the Marriott Marquis poses, arms folded over Broadway, and declares itself independent, in the great entrepreneurial tradition, of history and of place. No, not independent of history-contemptuous of it. The old theaters weren’t making money, for as everyone knows, Broadway is in terrible shape. Tear ’em down! Put up a newer, bigger theater for nobody to use!

A little farther downtown, at Herald Square, glares the Herald Center, another newcomer that would be right at home on Central Expressway, a monolithic mirrored-glass mall that makes Macy’s behind it look like a kiosk in Red Square. I always thought these kinds of buildings were for the baby boom cities, the ones built fast and cheap to accommodate the needs of a population relentlessly on the move. The only glass forest I ever saw outside Third Avenue in the Fifties was when I moved to Dallas, which seemed to be made of the stuff and which seemed hellbent on replacing any stray brick with a mirror. Certainly Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami-to mention only a few-are near equals in this department. But with hardly any warning, New York horned in on the glass action when these upstart cities began describing themselves as world class.

LOTS OF LITTLE lights also seem to be a requirement for world classiness. Consider, again, the Dallas Galleria at Christmastime, with its strands of tiny lights hung from the skylit vault. Well, we’ve got them, too, in spades. The Helmsleys commandeered The Villard House at 50th and Madison, reducing it to a plinth for the staggeringly mundane hotel tower built above and behind it and dubbed, with world class modesty. The Helmsley Palace. The trees in the courtyard of the Villard Houses are strung with thousands of little lights that twinkle year-round. Little, rather than big, lights are, of course, the difference between world class and vulgar; at night, people hang around the Palace’s gilded wrought-iron gates, gawking through the twinkling branches into the lobbies and conference rooms beyond.

Across town, New York is building a new convention center, so that the one we already have at Columbus Circle can be replaced by a mall. The new convention center fills 34 acres in the shadow of the Empire State Building, stretching from 39th to 34th streets, 11th to 12th avenues. The new convention center will make the city a more attractive spot for political gatherings and merchandise marts, which is what all the cities are doing these days.

In the past, conventions were planned in New York because it was the locus of business and the arts in America, but that’s either changed or irrelevant. Now the real competition in conventions is for slab architecture, the kind of buildings AT&T has been planting in cities from White Plains to, well, Dallas, and New York is proving it’s up to snuff with its new convention center-a blank concrete field topped, natch, with a million glass panes.

THE OLD STUDIO 54 gang recently resurfaced on charming East 14th Street, turning the one-time Academy of Music into the Palladium, the hottest mainstream club in town. On the street, a contingent of bouncers keeps the hopefuls waiting in the rain, uninterested in their $15 covers despite the fact that on this weekday night it’s half empty inside. The main stairway up to the dance floor and galleries is lighted from below. Two vast banks of video screens-25 in each-rise and fall in syncopation with computerized spotlights over the dance floor while oglers watch from the balconies or make out on couches in semi-darkened alcoves. Downstairs, well-populated bathrooms are connected by a psychedelic tunnel, the Day-Glo telephone booths adding to your sense that the whole thing was created by Red Grooms as a takeoff on the East Village, circa 1967.

A similar chic snobbery is always in evidence at Dallas’ Starck Club, which is virtually a double of the Palladium and which came first. At both, sensuality cohabitates with high-tech depersonalization: Bodies writhe on the dance floor and grind on furniture as the crowd is manipulated by canned music, robot lights and unseen mechanisms. The gargoyles, cherubs and gilt of the Palladium, a former opera/vaudeville movie house most recently employed as a rock palace, are fully restored: The club has been preassembled and placed, a stage set, inside the theater-much the way the Starck Club glitters inside a former brewery in Dallas’ warehouse district. With its heatless social sizzle, the Palladium is extremely Dallas, and always, the patrons are part of the show. Going there can be a sexily displacing experience. The present (thumping music, technological gimcrackery, the look-at-me crowd) has a crazy disjunction from the staring golden, puff-cheeked faces of the past on the walls.

Down next to the World Trade Center, Cesar Pelli’s World Financial Center is sprouting in the landfill, pushing the Manhattan shoreline ever closer to New Jersey. The WFC complex, which will house American Express’ World Headquarters, is faux Las Colinas, with the Hudson River instead of a canal signifying life. Throw in a little of Dallas’ LTV Tower, too, to account for the mansard roof. True, the prototype Las Colinas was New York’s own Co-op City, an apartment complex in the Bronx more populous than several states. But Coop City was Fifties boring, while Las Colinas-and the World Financial Center after it-revel in a certain sterile visual eclecticism: lots of flashy curves and angles; nothing you’d ever want to step foot in. All the WFC needs now is a herd of bronze horses stampeding through lower Broadway.

Look, you could sever the whole southern tip of Manhattan, its reflective glass towers looming over the once dignified, sun-poor alleyways of Wall Street, and the sight would be identical to Dallas as one approaches the city from the south on I-45.

BUT IF NEW YORK is finally gaining in the competition for boring new buildings and concrete slabs, it is fighting a tougher battle for the hearts and minds of those who made Dallas world class: America’s shoppers. New York City wants to be mailed, and mailed it is getting.

At the South Street Seaport, on the East River, the honorable stink of raw fish has been replaced by the soap scents of Caswell-Massey. Here, indeed, is not one mall but several, housing such mall denizens as Brookstone’s gadgeteria, Abercrombie & Fitch’s sportique and, of course, Friisen Gladje ice cream.

It’s a world class mall. These places are terrific; they have everything for everybody under one roof. Alligator shirts and pinstripe suits wait in line at Sloppy Louie’s and the North Star Pub, talking co-op conversion and corporate mergers. Close your eyes (Or don’t close your eyes! It doesn’t make any difference!) and you could be at the Galleria or Faneuil Hall, Fisherman’s Wharf or St. Anthony Main. Time was, these places could be confused with one another, but never with New York. All that has changed.

Of course, New York still has its neighborhood shops, but now they’re taking on world class character, too. The nabes betray a history of gentrification: Columbus Avenue was Sohoized, which was Bloomingdozed. Already in the East Village, where ex-shooting galleries are being tarted up and condoed, the talk is of Columbussing. In all of these, shoe repair shops are being replaced by the Pottery-Barnes-and-Noble-Benetton cartel. Crummy has been usurped by quaint. And everyone from ice cream parlor owners to barbers seems to be doing over the old doorway in gold leaf.

New York City used to think it didn’t need this stuff, and look what that got us: a major population shift toward NorthPark. But we’re scrappers. We got the message; you could check it out. Hey, Laura Ashley practically started here, and don’t you forget it. We have Steve’s. Dallas, watch out.


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