It Happened This Year: Introduction

New York spent much of 2004 imagining that it was becoming more like the rest of the United States, only to realize late in the year that it was still rather different in a crucial respect or two. Optimism reigned early on, as the life expectancy of New Yorkers was found to have surpassed the national average, the crime rate continued its decade-long drop, and the city’s population reached a new peak of 8,085,742. The Yankees announced that they had signed Alex Rodriguez, making him the richest person in stripes, at least until Martha Stewart reported to prison seven months later. Traditionalists may have kvetched when the subway finally stopped accepting tokens, but everyone was glad when the Statue of Liberty reopened to visitors for the first time since 9/11 (not that any of us would ever go there ourselves). The year’s most-raved-about new restaurant, Per Se, opened in a shiny new vertical shopping mall that brought a bit of edge-city Dallas to Columbus Circle. A Target store cropped up in Brooklyn, a Home Depot moved into a historic cast-iron building in Chelsea, a big-box stadium kept being praised (and denounced) on TV, and Times Square, having completed its family-friendly transformation, celebrated its 100th anniversary with nary a hooker in sight to mark the occasion by offering 1904 prices.

If the city seemed to be drawing closer to the world west of the Hudson, the feeling was apparently mutual. Two TV shows that had seduced the hinterland with a fantasy version of New York life, Friends and Sex and the City, ended their long runs amid ballyhoo and tears. And Donald Trump’s ruthlessly meritocratic vision of Manhattan proved unexpectedly appealing to a nationwide audience. As if to ratify the cultural convergence, presidential daughter Jenna Bush moved to New York, reportedly in search of margaritas of mass destruction. As if to resist it, two guys in Central Park climbed a tree, doffed their clothes, and had sex for four hours in front of a crowd of curious onlookers before they were arrested.

All the while, New York was keeping one eye firmly fixed on the presidential campaign, anticipating its arrival here in the form of the Republican convention. The city braced for mayhem and even terror as the largest armada of land, air, and sea forces ever assembled to protect a political gathering was put in place. But street protests were for the most part adroitly handled by police, and, despite scattered incidents of harassment, the corn-fed GOP delegates seemed to enjoy themselves top hole. Mayor Bloomberg remained aloof from the proceedings, subversively appearing before a group of Log Cabin Republicans. Former mayor Giuliani, by contrast, mounted the podium in prime time, declaring before the credulous delegates that the first thing he said to Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik after the World Trade Center was hit on 9/11 was “Thank God George Bush is president.”

Having taken the event in its stride, New York breathed easier for a brief spell. The Yankees, after demonstrating their superiority by winning the first three games of the American League Championship, graciously allowed the Boston Red Sox to sweep the next four so they could go on to win the World Series and thereby lift the “curse of the Bambino,” which everyone had gotten thoroughly sick of hearing about. Fresh from welcoming the heartland into the city, many New Yorkers went forth unafraid into swing states. As Election Day loomed, the tension, once again, became almost unbearable.

Then the city awoke on November 3 to discover that, by voting three to one for the loser, it had more in common with Old Europe than with Middle America. (The only borough Bush carried was Staten Island, which has always gone its own way; in the days of Guy Molinari, it even had its own foreign policy.) Some New Yorkers took psychic refuge in isolationism. “I can always go back to the United States of New York,” was how actor John Cameron Mitchell, who’d had some slightly scary experiences while electioneering in Ohio, put it. Others, especially on Wall Street, no doubt looked forward to the prospect of enriching themselves in a second Bush administration that succeeded in privatizing Social Security.

As the shock of the election began to abate, new developments arose to play on our sentiments. Moist of eye and tremulous of voice, Tom Brokaw bid adieu to his audience at NBC Nightly News. CBS’s Dan Rather, under a cloud no larger than a forged document, announced that he would soon do the same, leading many to fear that the great age of the news anchor was finally over. But, thankfully, ABC’s Peter Jennings didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and we’ll always have Lewis Dodley of NY1. Nor were those the only reasons for cheer. “Democracy Plaza,” as it had been embarrassingly dubbed by NBC during the campaign, regained the dignity of its true appellation, Rockefeller Plaza; Whoopi and Dame Edna battled it out on Broadway; and a blaze of Nutcrackers and Messiahs illumined the city’s way toward a typically giddy year-end. And if the first Wal-Mart in New York—set to open in 2008 in Queens—will weigh in at 135,000 square feet, the new Museum of Modern Art is still five times bigger. Happy holidays.

It Happened This Year: Introduction