New York, New York

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The city that has become an icon offers different views on life.

I remember arriving in New York and having the odd feeling that I'd been there before. Everything was familiar, even the faces on the street. But I'm not a believer in past lives, so I knew it was no echo from a previous existence. I had the same feeling recently watching 'Sex and the City', which now seems to be repeated eight times a week in various slots, and the return of 'NYPD Blue'--not to mention yet another 11 September documentary and 'Gangs of New York' reviewed on several pages of every Sunday paper. I can't remember a week when Birmingham or Pittsburgh appeared in half a dozen places at once--and I never felt that same sense of familiarity arriving anywhere else.

The truth is that New York has become iconic, a symbol of empire and power as emphatic and unique as Rome. Even before television, I'm sure that colonials gasped when they stood in front of the Colosseum or saw the Forum appearing through the trees. But perhaps that isn't the best comparison--the feeling of hitting New York is probably closer to the awe of the pilgrim reaching the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. New York functions more like a secular temple than an urban landscape. My week of New York television brought that home very powerfully.

It was the construction of 'NYPD Blue' that helped it to sink in. It is edgy, episodic, fast--the insistent heavy drumbeat and the sweeping, nervous camera work don't leave you time to look properly, to examine a face or take in a scene. You are allowed a brief, fleeting impression. The narrative is centred on the team of cops: the paranoid Sipowitz, loving his sick child but hating the world for making him sick, full of a rage always about to explode into a barely controllable violence; Sorensen is all clean lines and brooding strength--but he speaks with a kind of clipped formality that suggests he is always struggling to control some inner demon; Diane, Medavoy, the Captain, all have their secrets and traumas.

This is a very far cry from the sophisticated, generally quiet New York of Carrie and her friends, all pavement cafes and art gallery receptions. Theirs is a world without violence, without threat--a place where the personal overwhelms the social, and sex and shoes occupy the foreground. The camera moves lovingly away from a glistening street or a shadow on the window. The only buzz is the conversation of the other diners at the latest sushi-pasta fusion bar. No drums here--only a tinkling marimba.

The only clue that these two worlds might occupy the same space is in the title credits--The Twin Towers have been removed, but the skyline is still recognisable. The streets are still canyons, the buildings still scrape the sky. The difference, I suppose, is class. The four friends endlessly travelling the landscapes of their own bodies live in a safe city--or to put it another way, their 'New York' is a temple of consumption and achievement. Their success is taken for granted. The landscape (their world) is confidently set in the centre of the universe. Everything is available--the question is how to find it and possess it. Isn't that the symbolism of Carrie's enormous shoe collection? Their high altar is a designer outlet on Park Avenue, in a temple of plenty.

Sipowitz and the others walk a wilder side where nothing is certain. The series sometimes falls over into sentimentality, with false resolutions and dreamy excursions out of the mean streets. But it is to its credit that it always comes back, and brings back the edgy, insecure twitching camera that gives a sense of how New York looks from 123rd Street, or Harlem or the South Bronx. Because they are New York too--except that there the economic crisis is biting, and shopping is something other people do. This New York is full of potholes and sudden violence, scornful of the dreams of people who will never get closer to Carrie and her friends than the other side of the Starbucks counter, or more likely the television in the corner.

New York is the final guarantee of individual achievement, eternal beauty and, above all, the time to pursue fulfilment and desire. New York is dangerous and its pavements are cracked, and the sewers steam in summer and the pipes freeze in winter, and the American Dream is distantly visible across the Hudson. Same city, different worlds. Or perhaps it just depends on which television programmes you watch.