A couple weeks ago, during a visit to see my mother in New York, multitudes of building cranes across the skyline told of the growing economy. Skyscrapers everywhere seem to be getting taller there, and in the three years since I’ve been there, some streets in my mother’s neighborhood of Chelsea have been redeveloped.
The overall effect is a newer, sleeker Manhattan. Even the subways seem slightly less gritty than I remembered them. In 2014, then Vice President Joe Biden compared LaGuardia Airport to a “Third World” country, and now that facility is undergoing a makeover.
Unware the improvements at LaGuardia were planned, I made sure to use the restroom on the plane before landing in New York. I remembered only one restroom with long lines at that airport, and I repeated Biden’s comparison to the woman in the aisle seat next to me as I forced her to move aside for me. But today, several restrooms can be found at LaGuardia with workers ensuring they’re clean.
The airport makeover has resulted in much more welcoming place for visitors. Years ago, as I’d climb aboard an express bus to drop me off in midtown Manhattan, I’d wonder how newcomers could find their way around. Now, the state’s Port Authority employs workers sporting red vests and jackets at welcome stations to guide you.
I also visited Long Beach in Long Island, where Tim and I lived for three years before moving to Wisconsin. Like much of the coastal area, that barrier island suffered near devastation during Hurricane Sandy. Comedian Billy Crystal, a Long Beach native, responded by donating $1 million to Long Beach to rebuild the boardwalk. It’s finished now, as are new several new apartment buildings, a beachfront hotel charging $400 per night, and other new development.
I could be nostalgic about the changes, and I often see social media posts from others who are. The gentrification has completely changed the West Village near Washington Square Park, where before my time, Bob Dylan performed, and Jimi Hendrix had his recording studio.
Several family-owned businesses have been forced out by astronomical rents, and I do miss some of the restaurants and shops I went to when I was young.
On this trip, my biggest complaint about the changes was I couldn’t find a touristy shop to buy t-shirts.
The East Village has changed, too. But here’s what impressed me most: The open spaces where people congregated to drink and use drugs have been replaced with public areas sporting bike racks and street furniture – tables and chairs so students at the nearby architectural and engineering school, Cooper Union, can comfortably hang out.
Not to say that Manhattan is any sort of utopia. Traffic is unmanageable. The United Nations General Assembly coincided with my arrival, and to accommodate the world leaders, roads were closed causing “gridlock alert days.”
During the hour-and-a-half ride from the airport, teams of police officers on traffic patrol directed cars at some highly congested intersections, just so pedestrians could safely cross.
And despite the sleek look, New York still shows the grime and wear and tear of a big city.
Yet somehow, the more than 8.17 million people make their lives there, including my friends and their families, and my mother, who has no plans to leave. In some crazy way, it all seems to work.
Waunakee is growing, too, and welcome redevelopment is underway, particularly as a new library is constructed. But as growth has occurred, shops that have been here for nearly a century – including the Tribune office – have remained. The small-town feel and relative quiet was comforting to return to.