Few experiences are more pulse-quickening than racing into New York City from the airport with pedal-to-the-metal abandon. The cabbie will have both the car radio and the dispatch CB turned on, treating the passenger to an aural mix of Bhangra chanting and squawks of reverb-distorted Hindi, together making the ride feel like a descent into Babel. He's going so fast in such heavy traffic that the threat of a colossal crash seems both imminent and unthinkable. Inside, you hear a frantic voice screaming, "Doesn't he see that TRUCK!!"
But on the outside, you calmly watch the driver make just enough minute adjustments to the steering wheel that allow the both of you to narrowly miss bridge pylons, oncoming charter buses and vengefully merging traffic. All at once the island of Manhattan rises into view, spreading out immensely in both directions, giving the passenger perhaps the only chance he'll have to take in the impossible breadth of the city, before being sucked into the Midtown Tunnel as if through a giant straw.
If there were a nerve center of the world, New York would have to be it. Finance, communications, publishing, art, fashion, music, advertising, dining, theater -- all the buzz begins here on the isle of Manhattan. That may sound like the geocentric hyperbole of someone born in Manhattan, but minute-for-minute, dollar-for-dollar and street-for-street, no city in the world offers New York's diversity of experience, opportunity and sheer, raw power.
Since World War II, New York City has served as the nation's number-one destination for gay Americans, regardless of hometown, as word of "liberated" neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village began to pervade the country's consciousness through popular culture and literature. The country's capital of the arts, New York's cultural scene has been dominated by gay men and women -- some say as much as 70 percent -- for decades, regardless of their relationship to the closet.
So sharpen your wits, keep walking, keep your eyes level (looking up reveals your newcomer status; besides, you'll run into people and things that way) and be open to anything, because it's all here.
BEST 4: GAYBORHOODS
New York City's gay-life nexus has sprung both north and eastward from its historic Greenwich Village roots, together with Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen and the East Village now forming a near-perfect "L".
With its epicenter at 18th Street and Eighth Avenue, Chelsea is New York's visibly gayest neighborhood, typified by its legions of young muscle boys, pumped up and proudly parodying (oops! we meant parading) their sexuality. Along the western fringes, you'll also find the city's largest concentration of art galleries, between 20th and 26th Streets and 10th and 11th Avenues.
Many first-time visitors to Greenwich Village (or the West Village, as locals know it) are surprised by how large and diverse this huge chunk of the city is. Bounded by 14th Street to the north, Houston Street to the south, Fifth Avenue to the east and the Hudson River to the west, The Village comprises many different communities, faces and lives. The gay West Village is centered around Sheridan Square and Christopher Street (beginning at Sheridan Square and running west), perhaps the first gay ghetto in the country.
Funkier than its western counterpart, the East Village is typified by small apartments, inexpensive ethnic restaurants, the best unusual shopping in the city and dozens of bars. Leftist political organizations and radicals (as far back as Emma Goldman) have called the East Village home for decades, and despite its (inevitably) rising rents and inexorable gentrification, the area still retains a rough, defiant edge. The queer scene of the East Village is in keeping with the area's individualistic spirit.
Also known (but less so these days) as Clinton, Hell's Kitchen is the most recently settled of the city's gay enclaves, earning it the new monikers of Hellsea and NoChe, both nods to southern neighbor Chelsea. Running roughly from 34th to 57th streets and from Eighth Avenue west to the Hudson River, Hell's Kitchen's proximity to Broadway and the theater district has drawn stray gays for decades, attracted by the formerly cheap rents of its tenement-style housing. It's only in the past few years that gay people have settled here en bloc, bringing with them the requisite bars and restaurants that now make Hellsea arguably the city's hottest queer playground.
BEST 4: OTHER NEIGHBORHOODS (UPTOWN)
UPPER WEST SIDE
Traditionally viewed as Manhattan's last bastion of respectable, middle-class life, the Upper West Side is characterized by huge apartment buildings filled with married couples, boisterous markets choked with strollers and rollerbladers, and the more establishment collegiate crowd, the ones who still wear their fraternity sweatshirts.
UPPER EAST SIDE
Stately, dignified, and WASPy, the Upper East Side has always been Manhattan's most elite neighborhood. It was here that the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Whitneys and the Hewitts built their mansions and made the area synonymous with wealth. Today, the area, bounded roughly by Fifth Avenue to the west, Lexington Avenue to the east, 60th Street to the south and 96th Street to the north, is still home to many of the world's richest and most powerful. Fittingly, the city's toniest shopping options are also here.
Though its heart is all business, nothing belts out "Manhattan" more dramatically than Midtown's famous cluster of skyscrapers: the Empire State Building (34th St., at Fifth Ave), the Chrysler Building (E. 43rd St., at Lexington Ave.), the Citicorp Tower (E. 52nd St., at Third Ave.) and the Met Life Building (Park Ave., at 45th St.). Oh, and that's not to exclude Rockefeller Center (between Fifth and Sixth Aves., from 45th to 49th Sts.) and the United Nations (First Ave., at 44th St.).
Often dismissed by tourists as too dangerous, Harlem is a huge chunk of the city, from 90th Street up to 178th, and from the Harlem River clear across to the Hudson. It does have some dangerous sections, as do most of New York's neighborhoods, but it also has some happening nightlife and restaurants, notable churches, and the city's greatest concentration of museums and landmarks of black culture. East Harlem, also known as "El Barrio," is one of the city's Hispanic sections.
BEST 4: OTHER NEIGHBORHOODS (DOWNTOWN)
It wasn't until the mid-'70s that this warehouse district was renamed SoHo, standing for South of Houston (bounded by Sixth Avenue to the west, Broadway to the east, Grand Street to the south and Houston Street to the north). Its rechristening was at the hands of its homesteading artists, who moved into the gigantic, cast-iron buildings for their cheap and enormous lofts. By the late '70s, SoHo had surpassed 57th Street as the center of the art world. Now that the galleries have moved en masse to Chelsea, SoHo has become a large open-air shopping mall, albeit with much trendier tenants than you'll find at your average buyplex.
Once home to, yes, meat packers and later to the scandalous sex trucks seen in the documentary "Gay Sex in the '70s" (lending new meaning to the name), this little neighborhood sandwiched between the West Village and Chelsea has been completely revitalized over the last 10 to 15 years, now boasting some of the city's hippest boutiques, eateries and nightspots. Watch for its further ascension when much-talked-about park The High Line opens at Gansevoort Street in 2008.
LOWER EAST SIDE
Though it's not uncommon for New York neighborhoods to undergo huge changes over time, few have done so more dramatically in recent years than the Lower East Side -- once almost exclusively a lower-class enclave for Eastern European Jews, then later for poor people of all ilks. In the early '90s, gentrification began pushing both south from the East Village and east from SoHo, culminating in a neighborhood that is today one of the city's hippest, having the most street cred. On weekends (especially at night), its streets are literally overtaken by cute, drunk, hetero youngfolk.
On the other end of the spectrum, Chinatown thankfully changes little through the march of time, except to get bigger. Home to the largest Chinese community in the Western Hemisphere (and still growing), Chinatown swallowed Little Italy nearly whole, and has been nibbling lately on the Lower East Side. A world unto its own, you'll see, smell, and if you're daring even taste things in New York's Chinatown that you're not likely to see, smell, or taste anywhere else this side of the Yangtze.