It was only fitting that I swooped into JFK on a Virgin flight – not because it was my maiden voyage over the bright lights of New York, but because the first time I arrived here, nearly a quarter of a century ago, I had only one thing on my mind: Madonna.
New York is a city that feels thrillingly familiar from the first moment you walk its streets. Blurs of yellow as taxis speed by; plumes of steam rising from the streets; towering skyscrapers and ubiquitous hotdog carts – cinema has made all of these things both expected and iconic. But of all the many films – Ghostbusters, King Kong, Taxi Driver, Wall Street – there was one film that left an indelible impression on me: 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, starring a relatively new singer called Madonna.
It’s a riot of disco music, sassy clothing, mistaken identities, edgy warehouse living, stolen artefacts, dangerous criminals, corner diners and seedy clubs. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous and, yes, I love it as much now as the first time I saw it, aged 12. So when I first arrived in New York at the age of 25, the American Museum of Natural History was not top of my list, despite my literary crush on Holden Caulfield.
Instead, I haunted Battery Park – a key location in the film – and stared out to the Statue of Liberty, accompanied by buskers on bongos. I rooted through thrift stores for eclectic fashion finds; ate noodles out of cardboard cartons; flirted with hotdog vendors; compared piercings with a policeman, and danced until well after dawn in disused warehouses and smoky clubs. The counterculture and raw excitement of the East Village was intoxicating: I rarely ventured uptown.
And when an ill-conceived romance took a turn, I didn’t (as Madonna does in the film) check the personals to see if my true love had placed an ad for me. No, instead I packed a bag and headed to the Port Authority, to (as Madonna does in the film) stash my belongings in a locker and figure out what to do next.
There was one problem: the lockers weren’t there. Although it was several years before 9/11, security concerns had already stripped the facility of its storage units and my plans, such as they were, were scuppered. Thanks to Madonna rolling into town on a Greyhound in the film, I realised that I could still channel some form of “Susan”, not to mention “Desperation”. Perhaps the Port Authority didn’t have lockers anymore, but it definitely still had buses – so I jumped on the next one out of there.
Visiting a significant place from a significant time has something of the high school reunion about it: excitement about “going back”, nervousness about whether reality will align with memory, and a self-critical eye that focuses anxiously on how much you’ve changed. And even though Madonna – now 64 years of age – continues to hold ageing at bay, most of us don’t have the wherewithal, nor the desire, to emulate her methods. Is it any wonder that many of us are drawn back to our pasts – whether reconnecting with old friends, reminiscing about an old flame, or revisiting scenes of a hedonistic youth?
Inevitably, though, it was not only I who was markedly different from the person I had been back in 1997 – the city was, too. Most obviously, of course, was the gaping scar of absence left on the skyline by the fallen towers. It’s a sight that native New Yorkers still struggle with now, 21 years after the 9/11 atrocities.
“Some changes you get used to after a while; you stop noticing,” said taxi driver, Michael. “This one shows itself fresh every day.” Almost defiantly, the city now bristles with a number of new skyscrapers, as well as the One World Trade Centre. Some, such as Central Park Tower and 111 West 57th St, are so vertiginous and pencil-thin as to look terrifyingly fragile; others, like 270 Park Avenue and the Spiral, are still under construction.
Heights and observation decks have always gone hand in (slightly clammy) hand; but there are now many more vantage points than the Empire State Building to choose from. The Top of the Rock (topoftherocknyc.com) reopened in 2005 and, since 2020, the Edge at Hudson Yards (hudsonyardsnewyork.com), standing at 1,100ft and featuring glass barriers and a glass section of floor, has provided uninterrupted, if slightly stomach-lurching, views. Elsewhere, Summit One Vanderbilt and One World Observatory combine their panoramas with slick architecture and high-tech features.
Such differences were, to some extent, expected. Less so was the fact that, as I’d become a little calmer with age, the city had too. Gentrification seemed to have seeped into the pores of my former haunts, and I dodged Bugaboos and Lycra-clad yoginis on my way to Love Saves the Day, the vintage clothing store with the hallucinogen-acronym name in which Madonna, as Susan, swaps her heavily embellished jacket for a pair of sequinned boots.
Except sadly, like my 1997 lockers, the store is no longer there, having closed in 2008 after 42 years as an oasis of kitsch. A percentage increase of 11,479 per cent on rent tells much of the story – and it’s a tale reflected in the prices of still-extant stores. “I gotta have ’em, but 65 bucks?!” exclaims Madonna over the boots. A bargain by today’s standards: a few blocks away, at Metropolis Vintage, a Madonna T-shirt is a tidy $160.
If construction and gentrification have played their part in altering the New York landscape, then so have online platforms, for which, it seems, everything must be as photogenic as possible. The gritty street art of the 1990s, driven by social activism, has largely given way to lavish murals, driven by social media. At Somewhere, Nowhere (somewherenowherenyc.com), a Chelsea club with a rooftop pool, our cocktails were embellished with petals, and the ceiling dripped with artificial blooms, through which giant hummingbirds swayed.
My hotel, located opposite Webster Hall in the East Village, was part of the Moxy chain, where rooms are designed with stylish simplicity, for sleeping, and the public spaces are designed for selfie-taking, complete with chirpy slogans emblazoned on elevator walls, carefully curated shelves and hanging chairs. Downstairs, in the Cathédrale Restaurant, I dined beneath a massive wire mesh sculpture, and among swathes of satin, high arches, and vintage neon signs.
And from a culinary point of view, my past-life dollar-hotdogs were replaced by Cathédrale’s succulent lamb; by steak Diane, flambéed tableside at Dowlings at the Carlyle on the Upper East Side (rosewoodhotels.com), and by slurpable oysters by the dozen at the East Village’s Saint (saintny.com). The world may have embraced veganism in the 25 years since I was here, but I haven’t: my carnivorism is just a little more upmarket now.
My drinking habits, however, are not – and, as Robert Simonson wrote in The New York Times in 2015, “New York City is suffering from dive-bar-collapse disorder”. Thank heavens for the International (internationalbarnyc.com), which moved down the block from the First Avenue location it had occupied since the 1980s – without losing its edge. Entering its dark interiors, complete with unembellished drinks, shot-slinging bar staff, strangers happy to chat – and not a floral arch in sight – was a welcome step back in time.
But even a party girl needs a rest sometimes – so, for my final two nights in the Big Apple, I wrapped myself in the gracious embrace of Midtown’s the Peninsula. With its Life Lived Best initiative, offering a range of wellness experiences, recovery was sweet – indeed, as Saturday night descended upon the city, I stayed happily in my room, lulled into drowsiness by a curated bath experience, delivered to my door.
The following morning, refreshed, a jog through Central Park was followed by a leisurely walk along the High Line – a lushly planted, elevated rail track transformed into a public space in 2009. My last stop was at the Whitney Museum of American Art (whitney.org). Until 2014, this was located on the Upper East Side, but is now housed in a Renzo Piano-designed building in the formerly seedy Meatpacking District, today lined with upscale boutiques and restaurants. For cities and people alike, things change and, yes, move. As 50 approaches, I’m running with the idea that this doesn’t stop them from remaining fabulous.
Moxy NYC East Village (00 1 212 288 6699; moxyeastvillage.com) has double rooms from £190 per night. The Peninsula (00 1 212 956 2888; peninsula.com) has double rooms from £1,213 per night. Discover more places to stay with our guide to the best hotels in New York.
Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) flies from London Heathrow to New York JFK from £369 return.
For more information, go to visittheusa.co.uk. Covid rules All travellers aged 18 and above must show proof of being fully vaccinated to enter the United States.