We took a 1997 Lonely Planet tourist guide to New York City and tried to use it in 2015
What has changed? What has stayed the same? Is the city described in the guide the same city that exists today? We've scoured the pages and walked the maps. Here's what we found.
“The Big Apple is Back.” That’s pretty much the first thing you read in Lonely Planet’s 1997 tourist guide to New York City. That headline is situated right beneath a photo of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center and the ensuing text explains how Rudy Giuliani cleaned up the city and got the economy on track. Man, things have changed, huh?
So I set out to try to follow an outdated tourist guide around the city that I’ve called home for the last seven years.
In order to acquire a sight-seeing manual that’s 18-years-old, you have to either trust some online re-sellers that don’t clearly specify the publication dates or head to NYC’s iconic 42nd street research library. After requesting the book from a helpful librarian with a British accent, I killed some time taking in the interior architecture, trying to find where Ghostbusters was shot and sharpening a pencil. When’s the last time you sharpened a pencil? Libraries are still pencil only, apparently.
The research library doesn’t allow people to check out books. It exists for reference purposes, so I had to make due with grungy black and white photocopies of the perfectly preserved guide. It was a nice retro start to our journey. As I flipped through the book page by page and pressed scan, the New York of the '90s and the one that I know today didn’t seem that different. I started to wonder what I would really gain from this trip.
We took a Lonely Planet tourist guide to New York City from 1997 and tried to use it in 2015. What has changed? What has stayed the same? Is the city described in the guide the same city that exists today? We've scoured the pages and walked the maps. Here's what we found.
I’m out of the subway on a beautiful Wednesday morning and it’s basically the first day of spring. Everyone in the city has had a pretty miserable winter that broke a lot of records for cold and snowfall. My guidebook says that the city’s weather “can make life unbearable sometimes,” and it is absolutely correct. So far, this couldn’t be a better day to pretend to be a tourist.
If you want to see the changing face of Manhattan, it’s best to stick to the areas below 14th street. (Times Square of '97 was already Disney-fied; the Upper East Side highlights are still there; Harlem is slowly experiencing some major upheavals. Check out our album of photos from these areas here.) I decided to start in the East Village, heading down Second Avenue. I pass a 7 Eleven, the ubiquitous convenience store chain that has been rapidly expanding in the city over the past few years. The New York corner bodega has been a symbol of locally-owned pride for decades and the Slurpee-slinging franchise of the suburbs wants a piece of that pie.
As soon as I’m walking down Second, I notice a heavy police presence and barricades ahead. This usually means the President is in town or something, so I don’t think much of it. I’m hungry and I've got tunnel vision looking for a place that Lonely Planet recommends, while all around me there’s lots of talk about the weather, kids seemingly skipping school, snatches of standard New York dialogue, “The fuck you talkin to?” and "yeah I been had done that" etc.
As the barricades become more numerous and I find myself unable to continue on the sidewalk. People are taking photos of the cranes and trucks that are blocking the street. I realize where I am. On March 26th, an explosion occurred at 121 SECOND AVE and the fire eventually spread to 119 and 123. There’s a giant hole where three buildings were just days ago. At least 19 people were injured and at least two have died. I realize I’ve already slipped into full tourist mode and haven’t been paying attention to my environment. Looking at the destruction right in front of me, I almost missed a truck heading directly for me.
Then and now prices
Cost of a beer at McSorley's
Cost of a show on a Friday night
at Arlene's Grocery
I cut over to First Avenue and pass an ancient looking bodega called
1 ELEVEN and wonder if they’re jumping into competition with the biggest purveyors of gulps, or if they just predated them by six undefined units of measure.
The food that’s recommended in the East Village is either mostly gone (Benny’s Burritos, Hotel Galvez, Princess Pamela’s Southern Youch) or not open for business yet (Hasaki, Lanza’s) and I resign myself to walking down Houston Street and hitting KATZ DELI (founded in 1888, in guidebooks perpetually). As you walk in, a very large man hands you a ticket that your order will be written on. You hold onto this ticket with intense paranoia because if you lose it you’ll be charged $50. I order a chili dog, fries and a Pepsi. It’s all pretty unremarkable but it's a nice to visit. Not much has changed here over the years, accept the addition of new celebrities to the wall of photos, including our new Mayor Bill de Blasio. I don’t lose my ticket and my hotdog bill comes out to $14.35.
I hit a BODEGA for coffee and ask the guy at the counter what he thinks changed the most about the neighborhood since the '90s. He tells me that it’s just a lot more expensive and declines to say much more or give a name. My large coffee costs $1.75, which seems very reasonable.
The suggested walking tour of SoHo begins where BROADWAY MEETS HOUSTON. It tells me to head south and pay attention to the mini-museum district where I will find the New Museum, The Alternative Museum, The African Museum and Guggenheim SoHo. None of them are there. (The New Museum moved to Bowery; the others are gone.) In their place, you will find an American Eagle Outfitters, a Billabong, a Kenneth Cole and a Duane Reade.
This is the key difference in the SoHo of 2015. Whereas the neighborhood of 1997 is characterized as “the city’s leading area for art galleries, clothing stores and boutiques,” today it’s pretty much just clothing stores and boutiques. The art has migrated or disappeared. Throughout every neighborhood actually, it seems that cultural spots like bookstores, music venues and record shops are always the biggest casualties.
The guide says that the streets “become jam-packed with tourists and street artists selling homemade jewelry and paintings in defiance of the laws requiring a city license.” I encounter exactly one street artist, or at least a form of one — BILL HICKEY, who sells reproductions of the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy.
Hickey says he was a trader on Wall Street before he became an entrepreneur. He ran a club in Brooklyn briefly and opened a cafe in Philly “because the real estate was so much cheaper, you know?” After selling his business and moving back to the city, he became obsessed with Banksy and wanted one of his own so bad that he just made the stencil himself. His friends started requesting their own canvas so he made more and he realized there was a market. He seems to really love the anonymous artist street art in general. “As a fan, you know, I used to see KAWS all over when I was a kid and Shepard Fairey Obey, and Swoon. She’s phenomenal, her studio’s in my neighborhood. When I travelled this fall, I got to see her work in Paris during the 'White Night' exposition where I got to see street artists from all over the world. So that was really cool, seeing pieces in my neighborhood and then seeing them half the world away you know?”
He’s taken to doing some “mash-up” canvases and combining street-artists like Banksy and COST (NYC’s most prolific wheat-paster) onto a single canvas. “COST was one of my first likes on Instagram,” and he says that encouraged him to keep it up. When our conversation turns to authenticity, he flips over one of the pieces and shows me the url for his website, notoriginalbanksy.com. “So to me, it’s gonna be more authentic than trying to be authentic, you know what I mean?”
As I finish my walk through SoHo, the streets get nicer and less crowded. I walk by the former Leo Castelli Gallery which is now a DKNY. Castelli was the first to show many of the giants of contemporary art like Warhol, Johns, Stella and Lichtenstein. Today, the former space is surrounded by undistinguished decorative art that’s pre-framed behind glass. As I walk away I feel a tap on my shoulder and am greeted by my friend who co-runs a tremendous gallery in Brooklyn but today he’s working his day job; moving that unremarkable art from a truck into a storefront. He can't talk, just says hello and gets back to business.
LONELY PLANET'S RECOMMENDATIONS
Dance clubs, venues
BUDDHA BAR - Closed
DON HILL'S - Closed
LIMELIGHT - Closed
NELL'S - Closed
PALLADIUM - Closed
ROXY - Closed
SAVE THE ROBOTS - Closed
SYSTEM - Closed
TATOU - Closed
WEBSTER HALL - Open
The tour of Greenwich Village is the most peaceful and surprising highlight of my day. I’ve given up on comparing whether something is still there or not and I’ve relaxed into just letting the guide walk me down some unfamiliar streets. As I pass the Cafe Wha? (description: “A legendary club where Jimi Hendrix once played. It’s in days are long passed”), I turn down the most amazing street of the day. Minetta Street is a beautiful sideroad that you pretty much have no reason to go down at all. It’s just a few blocks of converted row houses and it’s completely silent. I am calmed. I see a sign that says quiet zone.
The quiet zone is Father Demo Square and along with the signs urging silence there are “Don’t feed the pigeons” notices everywhere. Feeding the pigeons is exactly what the elderly man that I sit beside is doing. I take a break and go through my photocopied guide for a bit when the man asks me if I know anything about cell phones. He wants me to fix the time on his Android and I’m just as confused as he is when I try, so I apologize and return the phone.
He says his name is Al Heitzer and he’s lived in the neighborhood for 70 years. Now this is a man who could tell me what’s changed in the area. “NYU and real estate vultures are destroying the neighborhood. The local pharmacy across the street from me had to close because they tripled the rent and people knock on my door to offer buyouts on my apartment. I tell 'em no. The cities expensive but I’m never living anywhere that I have to have a car.” We trade stories about traffic accidents and I’m appreciative that I’m just walking everywhere I want to go today. The bread for the pigeons is gone and I tell Al I’ve gotta go. He asks if he can take a picture of me because he likes to post people he meets around the neighborhood on his Facebook. He may not be able to change the time on his phone, but it seems like he’s got his social media game down.
THE REST OF GREENWICH VILLAGE isn’t much different than what is described in the guide. One record shop has closed but another is open, one bar has had its permanent last call (Chumley’s) but another has a bustling happy hour (The Slaughtered Lamb). There’s a 7 Eleven and a Starbucks.
When I asked about changes, everyone today just talked about money. So I decide to go where the money is.
lonely planet recommendations
BARNES & NOBLE - Open
GOTHAM BOOK MART - Closed
COLISEUM BOOKS - Closed
SHAKESPEARE & CO. - Open
THREE LIVES - Open
BOOKS & CO. - Closed
ST. MARKS BOOKSHOP - Moved
RIZZOLI - Moved
STRAND - Open
ALABASTER BOOKS - Open
THE ARGOSY - Open
CHELSEA BOOKS AND RECORDS - Closed
EAST VILLAGE BOOKS AND RECORDS - Moved and lost the records part of the name
still in the same place
The Financial District
The E train takes you straight to the World Trade Center and when I arrive in the Financial District, there’s a crush of people, tourists and businessmen are all bumping into each other — the tourists because they don’t know where they’re going, the businessmen because they’re screaming into their phones.
ONE WORLD TRADE CENTER is a foreboding complex of steel and glass. The anxiety it creates certainly comes from the tragic history of the buildings but also the fortress-like structures you have to navigate to enter and some particularly strange aesthetic choices like the massive transit hub that looks like an exposed rib cage.
Lonely Planet tells me that the old Twin Towers “never stirred people’s hearts in the same manner as the Empire State Building.” Reactions to 1WTC have been similarly cold. The New York Times architecture critic said that, “One World Trade is symmetrical to a fault, stunted at its peak, its heavy corners the opposite of immaterial. There’s no mystery, no unraveling of light, no metamorphosis over time, nothing to hold your gaze ... Not so bad should never be good enough.”
PASSING THROUGH CONCRETE BARRIERS and barbed wire fences, I follow the herd to the base of the tower and decide I will try to go to the top just as Lonely Planet tells me to do at the old WTC. That idea is quickly shut down by an extremely polite doorman who informs me the observation deck isn’t open yet. He was middle-aged with an accent that seems to be vaguely from somewhere in Africa mixed with hints of New Yawk. “I believe it will be open … one month, something like that, something like a month from now. We don’t know much it will cost to go up yet but it will be somewhere between $25 to $35.” I thank him for his help and consult my papers, in 1997 it cost $7 to go to the observation decks.
↑ Twin Towers, that “never stirred people’s hearts in the same manner as the Empire State Building.”
Getting back on track, I follow the maps through the heart of Wall Street. All the landmarks are still present. This isn’t a particularly commercial area, it’s an institutional place filled with institutions that are too big to fail. I pass the beautiful chapel for TRINITY CHURCH, an Episcopal house of worship that also traffics in New York’s biggest religion, real estate. In 2011, Trinity made $158 Million in revenue from its property holdings, like everything in the area its big, big business.
WALL STREET itself always makes my head spin with fantasies of powerful men pulling levers that topple governments and decide the fates of people around the world. The architecture, as you walk past the famous Golden Bull, reinforces this feeling. The buildings spare no expense, incorporating the elements of temples from Rome and Greece with a distinctly un-American style of attention to detail.
It's quitting time and the stock brokers are heading home for the day, so I check the guide to see where they might be getting a drink around here.
DELMONICO’S, “created the American idea of dining-out in the 19th century,” I’m informed. The restaurant was closed in 1997, but the text says that it was being prepared to reopen so I figure it's worth checking out.
After a day of hearing about money from everyone, the people here were discussing anything but.
The front door of Delmonico’s is surrounded by a portico, supported by pillars that were imported from Pompeii. The walls inside are lined with a mural that looks old, but it’s hard to tell if that's just a look. White tablecloths and eight different pieces of silverware per seat adorn the tables. Not having dressed for a fancy place, I'm expecting some attitude from the staff but am welcomed and treated with respect at all times.
Bellying up to the bar, I order a well whiskey on the rocks and look around for someone to talk to. My single house bourbon comes out to $15.02 with tip. Men (and only men) in well-tailored suits and expensive haircuts sit around the bar in conversation. Surprisingly, none of them seem to be talking about money. After a day of hearing about money from everyone, the people here were discussing anything but. The gentlemen directly next to me talked photography and what cameras they have found work best at capturing different types of light. I think, once you've captured the cash, light seems like a logical next step.
I finally notice a man with a shaved head and mustache who looks like G. Gordon Liddy and he seems to be calling the shots with the staff. He says his name is Corrado Goglia and that he’s been the General Manager since 1999, when Delmonico’s was taken over by new ownership.
“The restaurant was closed from 1992-97 because the stock market took a downswing and there wasn’t so much business,” he explains. As for the history of the place prior to ‘92, he rattles off facts about serving Presidents and Mark Twain. “Since we were the first fine-dining establishment we were, of course, the first of many firsts,” he patiently tells me, “The first dining room to have tablecloths, the first dining establishment to have a printed menu, the first place in America to be called the French name, "Restaurant,", the first restaurant to hire a woman cashier, the first restaurant to serve Eggs Benedict, many, many firsts."
I can tell he’s bored with this history stuff so I ask how the neighborhood has changed since he arrived and he becomes immediately more animated. "No one came down here at first and it was primarily a business area. Now it's 50/50 business and residential. We used to be a lunch business and now it's thriving at dinner as well. The entire area has a different feel." While he's saying this he throws in the standard, quick "since 9/11" reference and I ask what it was like after the attack. "Devastating. Yeah, let's just say those days were our most trying times. But now, better than ever."
AS I LEAVE AND RUN OVER THE DAY, remembering the pessimistic encounters with the less-well-to-do and the optimistic, practically elated outlook of the wealthy, the phrase "but now, better than ever" comes to mind, over and over. And I think, “The Big Apple Is Back?”
Where are they now?
Some places that Lonely Planet recommends aren’t where they used to be, but are still around
RIZZOLI BOOKSTORE — Replaced by G-Shock. Moved to 1133 Broadway
LEO CASTELLI GALLERY - Replaced by DKNY. Moved to 18 East 77th St
CLOCKTOWER GALLERY - Replaced by private condos. Now doing pop-up shows around the city.
THE ALTERNATIVE MUSEUM - Replaced by Desigual. Moved to The Internet.
THE KNITTING FACTORY - Replaced by private condos. Moved to 361 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn
MAPS, Illustrations: Sergii Rodionov