The Village is missing the Jersey girls

Jason Cowley finds that New York has only half recovered from the trauma of 11 September

It has often been remarked that, in the immediate aftermath of 11 September, New Yorkers were liberated into excess. Extinction was in the air and so they drank, they spent and they had sex in a kind of rapture of last things. In truth, it never happened. Or if it did, the effect was merely transient. New York, as I discovered on a visit this month, remains uncharacteristically becalmed, the shops, restaurants and hotels emptier than they should be, and the night and street life strangely flat. But still there is nowhere quite like Manhattan to infuse you with a spirit of renewal and optimism, though that one awful day in September means life in the city may for ever after have an undertone of mourning.

Even before the attack on the World Trade Center, New York was locked in recession, and the gaudiest spending spree in history was coming to an end. Today, things are much worse. Last month, for instance, 17,000 people were made redundant in the city, according to the New York Times, many of them working in low-paid supporting services in hotels and restaurants. When the nihilists of al-Qaeda destroyed the twin symbols of American affluence and power, they also destroyed the lives of many thousands of the urban poor, the Hispanic and other new immigrants, who each year continue to arrive hopeful in a city that remains infinitely open to enterprise.

Chinatown, close to the blighted financial district, has been particularly harshly affected by the general economic uncertainty. "This has been the worst period for business in 30 years," said Simon Wu, who runs a restaurant on Mosco Street. "We were always popular with tourists, but they're just not coming at the moment. There have been many bankruptcies."

His observations are supported by figures just released by NYC & Company, which promotes tourism in the city. There were more than 5.7 million international visitors to New York last year, a drop of 16 per cent compared with 2000. There was also a 14 per cent drop in domestic visitors.

Not surprisingly, spending by visitors decreased by more than 12 per cent, which meant a 12 per cent fall in sales tax. If you consider that, on a like-for-like basis, visitor numbers were up for the first eight months of 2001 compared with the previous year, the impact of 11 September on New York's economy was calamitous.

"The city is awfully quiet," confirms Cherylann Robinson, manager of the Gant store on Fifth Avenue. "It's nice if you want to go out as a local. But New York is about shopping. People come here to shop. And they're just not coming. If they do come, they want immediately to visit Ground Zero. It'll get worse before it gets better."

She may be right, although staff I spoke to at perennially popular tourist destinations such as Macy's and Bloomingdale's reported, in the argot, an "encouraging increase in consumer traffic" in recent months.

"What happened in September was devastating to our ego as Americans," says Deanna Williams of Bloomingdale's. "It was a blow to the core of who we are, and what we stand for. The period since then, with the war in Afghanistan and then that anthrax thing, has been surreal. People have been getting on with their lives, but it's, like, what's gonna happen next? Will there be another attack? Everyone I know is looking for answers and for meaning."

They certainly are: Station One, a local television station in New York, reported that, in the first month after 11 September, there was a 30 per cent increase in the number of people visiting psychiatrists and psychotherapists for the first time. The figure for March 2002 showed an increase of 70 per cent. So at least the shrinks are busy, if no one else.

Yet life goes on. And the British, at least, are beginning to return. After a dismal autumn and "restructuring" of its transatlantic service, Richard Goodfellow of British Airways reports "a brisk improvement" in business, enhanced no doubt by return flights to its "premier destination" available from between £199 and £280, as well as an improved service that includes a new "World Traveller Plus" cabin offering more comfort at reasonable prices - in some cases, for as little as a £150 upgrade. Certainly, the afternoon I flew to New York, the two economy cabins were packed but club class was empty.

As the weather improves, New Yorkers themselves are beginning to move again. The bars and restaurants on Prince and Mercer Streets in the Village seemed to have the same urgency and buzz of old, the same hectic jostling for a table - on the Friday night, that was. But Saturday night was different. Something was missing. Then I realised what it was: the suburban girls from New Jersey, with their fluorescent make-up and big bleached hair, who used to flood in to the Village on Saturday nights, in search of a good time and a rich banker or two. One of the best nights of my life was spent in the Village in the company of these Jersey girls - America's version of the Essex girl - and their absence was troubling.

During my stay, I based myself at Le Parker Meridien, on the same street as Carnegie Hall in the heart of the midtown hotel district. The understated Meridien has none of the oppressive opulence of some of the other midtown hotels, such as the Hilton and the creakingly ornate Waldorf, but all of their best facilities. In the weeks after 11 September, this superbly designed, minimalist hotel must have resembled a wartime emergency zone as it became an impromptu home to firefighters, the American Red Cross, other relief services and assorted charity workers.

One morning, over a brunch of caramelised confit-of-duck hash with poached eggs in Norma's, the celebrated all-day breakfast lounge, Victoria Barr, the engaging Californian-born marketing and sales director of the Meridien, spoke candidly of how hers and rival midtown hotels were striving to entice visitors back to the city.

"During last autumn, we were buoyed up by the wellspring of American patriotism. The atrocity was a catalyst for people from all over the country to come to visit us, people who had never been to New York before. But that wasn't enough. At our lowest ebb, the hotel was only about 30 per cent full. At least we were able to keep our staff employed by opening the hotel up to the American Red Cross, which meant we could get some heads on the beds. Other big hotels survived by renting out rooms as office space. Around here, it was the big signature restaurants, like Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe, as well as the theatres, that were worst hit. The small neighbourhood restaurants hung in there."

In many ways, New York still has much to learn about terrorism. As a Londoner who grew up with the pervasive threat of the IRA, I was surprised to find rubbish bins still standing on subway stations, and it remains too easy to park outside some of the city's most prestigious buildings, as I did outside the art-deco Chrysler Building. But at least there was a strong police and army presence at Grand Central Station, perhaps the most impressive building of its kind in the world. Leaving Grand Central on my final day, it was impossible not to be moved by the sight of a vast American flag suspended from the ceiling of the cathedral-like main concourse. At such moments, despite all the excess and the insularity of its foreign policy, one continues to believe in the possibility and grandeur of America, its endless capacity to engage and to surprise - a country whose power, as Robert Lowell put it, unhappily condemns it, "until the end of time/to police the world, a ghost/orbiting forever lost/in our own monotonous sublime".