New York Then and Now

by Ed Salvato

Ed Salvato is a leading gay travel expert, writer, and marketing consultant. He offers LGBT trip-planning tips on his website.

New York City was a very different place when I visited the first time. It was the late ’70s and I was 14, traveling with about 25 other Catholic school classmates most of whom had never been to New York. It was scary and exciting.

I’ll never forget standing in the then-unadorned median of Park Avenue at around 57th Street looking up and down this seemingly endless canyon of buildings. Rivers of yellow cabs — horns blaring — careered by. Plumes of steam billowed from pipes protruding from manholes. Huge crowds swept up and down the sidewalks. For a small city dweller it was a pulse-quickening, jaw-dropping experience that was forever seared into my memories.

To this day, my heart still races each time I taxi back from the airport and catch that first glimpse of the city from the Robert F. Kennedy (formerly Triborough) Bridge. But instead of being alien and scary the view is heartwarming, and I’m always a little surprised. I can’t believe this is my home. But when I first visited I had no idea I would end up living here. Times Square was incredibly scary. And, I remember thinking, super tacky. With t-shirt shops and divey bars punctuating every block. Central Park was a real highlight of our visit. We didn’t take a horse-drawn carriage. Even at that age I thought it seemed too-touristy and actually kind of cruel to the horses. But we were warned and warned again not to enter the park after dark. People still got mugged. Unruly young thugs went on “wilding” sprees frightening and robbing store owners and patrons.

In the mid-1980s I took my two sisters and younger brothers to New York for their birthdays. It was a fabulous weekend (except for the car accident we got into; no one was hurt but that’s a story for another day). The highlight of that trip was my one and only visit to the World Trade Center complete with photos we took from the bottom looking skyward to the vertiginous top and from the viewing area at the top of the entire world stretching for miles and miles in every direction.

We drove through Harlem and I remember seeing boarded up buildings everywhere. Guess where I live now? West Harlem on Edgecombe Ave at 142nd! Steps away I have an enviable suburban-like supermarket, a shiny, recently-opened New York Sports Club and (thank the gods of gentrification) a Starbucks, not to mention two fabulous parks (Jackie Robinson and St. Nicholas), the fully restored colonial home of one of our founding fathers (Alexander Hamilton) and a few blocks to the north the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest building in Manhattan, where George Washington stayed while executing our War of Independence.

New York City has much changed. And I’ve been lucky to witness the evolution from the ’70s till the present.

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