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Hill: Taking a bite of the Big Apple

David W. Hill
David W. Hill

In the words of Billy Joel, I'm in a New York state of mind.

After spending more than a week in New York City on my first-ever visit earlier this month, I haven't completely readjusted to the Northern San Joaquin Valley pace, weather or mojo.

What's making it a little tougher is remembering how much fun it was to move around in a city that's the self-proclaimed center of the universe, especially when it comes to food, fun and finance.

From the classic fare at corner delis and fine-dining cuisine at landmark restaurants to the live music at neighborhood bars and stirring performances at Broadway plays, there's plenty to keep visitors entertained in New York.

And that's not including trips to the city's landmarks: the Empire State Building, Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty, 9-11 Tribute Center, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Times Square, McSorley's Old Ale House (don't ask) and Wall Street.

Yes, Wall Street. While that might not seem like an odd choice for the newspaper's business editor and his understanding wife, I'd submit that, these days, taking a walk down Wall Street is a good idea for everyone who goes to New York.

Why? Because that's where it all happens. Upset about the performance of your 401(k)? Wondering whether it's a good time to buy stocks or confused about the direction the markets are going? Then Wall Street is where it's at. But tours of the exchanges are tough to get since Sept. 11, so walking the district likely will have to suffice.

That might seem a less-than-exciting way to experience Wall Street, but there's a lot to be said for walking among the towering buildings that create the dark canyons of the financial district. While certainly not the same as watching the frenetic trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, there is a sense of power that pervades the area.

Visiting on a workday is like going to and from a major sporting event. The subway platforms are jammed, trains are packed to standing-room only and streets are filled with cars, cabs, trucks and pedestrians -- all jockeying for openings so they can keep moving. Block someone's path and run the risk of getting pancaked.

Whether people are heading to Wall Street or one of the countless high-rise office complexes, it's that mass of humanity making its way back and forth to work -- with side trips for shopping, power lunches and business conferences -- that gives the city its unmistakable pulse. You feel it. You get caught up in it. It carries you along.

And if you listen very carefully -- my wife calls it eavesdropping -- you will hear an endless stream of chatter about all manner of commerce. People can be overheard discussing deals that might not go through, marketing campaigns that failed, partnerships that succeeded and, of course, office politics that are unresolved. You might even watch as an old financial pro counsels his business college graduate grandson on the merits of hard work and career development.

It seems as though everyone is doing business or talking about it.

Floor after floor of Manhattan's skyscrapers is filled with people working at their desks and in their cubicles. You see them everywhere, decked out in their business attire, from casual to formal -- Armani with power tie or Ann Taylor with power bag.

How much they really know or care about what's going on with the economy outside their seemingly insulated environment, I can't say.

I suspect there wasn't much concern about rising foreclosure rates in the Northern San Joaquin Valley or a few other regions when they first began to surface. How else could you explain the complete lack of restraint and failure to accurately assess the risk when it came to underwriting all those home loans?

Sure, greed played a huge role in that. But so did the willingness of the big banks, investment houses and lending institutions to look the other way as loans were approved for people who couldn't possibly pay them back. As long as those problem loans were concentrated in places such as the valley, which often gets written off as deserving of whatever problems it has, those New York businesses and workers probably couldn't have cared less.

I'd bet that's not the case anymore. Fallout from the housing and lending mess has spread far beyond the valley, leaving many New York-based companies fighting for survival amid a deep recession their policies and practices were instrumental in creating and fostering.

My sense walking around Wall Street and the rest of Manhattan is that the businesses that remain and their workers have dug in and are trying to dig out. There's a vibe in the city that it's business as usual, or as close to it as possible these days.

While that doesn't signal the end of our economic troubles, it shows that New York's attitude of never giving up is alive and well. It's a state of mind that's essential to getting things turned around, one anybody can develop. I love New York.

Bee business editor David W. Hill can be reached at dhill@modbee.com or 578-2336.

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