I served in New York in the early 1980s, and it is always a delight to go back. The Air India flight was on time and surprisingly an empty immigration hall greeted us, in sharp contrast to the crowded departure lounge in Delhi. It seems peripatetic Indians now travel come sun or snow.
My son lives in SoHo—South of Houston street—which divides the numbered-grid pattern above from the oldest inhabited part of Manhattan below. In the 1980s it had crumbling buildings, to whose north was the stinking meat district. In two decades, starting with artists moving to lofts, the entire southwestern part of lower Manhattan is now full of designer shops and quality restaurants. With renovated old cast-iron buildings and streets paved with old Belgian blocks, SoHo could be a slice of Milan. To its south is One World Trade Centre tower, which replaces the twin towers felled in the 9/11 attack, abutting Tri Beca—an area that actor Robert De Niro popularised, holding a film festival despite the huge disruption.
The Big Apple is constantly evolving. That’s something our big cities, hobbled by outdated rent control and zoning laws, need to emulate.
My son Krishan B. Singh heads a division of Inter Continental Exchange, which owns the New York Stock Exchange. He organised a ‘VVIP tour’ for Riva Das, India’s new consul-general in the city, S. Akbaruddin, India’s permanent representative to the UN, and me.
Set up by 24 brokers in 1792, NYSE moved to its current address on Broad Street in 1865. It had a Luncheon Club and a bar on the seventh floor, which is now under renovation. The trading floor no longer echoes with shouting like it did for 205 years until 1995, when paper transactions ended. The famous opening and closing bell used to be struck by a staffer. Then a school boy won a contest and was allowed to sound the bell as reward, starting a trend. Now, it is a marketing gimmick for new companies listed on NYSE or visiting dignitaries. During our visit, St Jude Children’s Research Hospital had a charity event and the closing bell at 4 pm was rung by two child cancer survivors.
Only two US presidents have ever been to NYSE—Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who came, perhaps, to express solidarity post 9/11. In all 1,366 seats are available to trade and in the financial capital of the world, NYSE is the locus of international finance.
On March 26, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal carried full page ads by coffee giant Starbucks, one that sought to make a political point. “When you read the headlines. Or turn on the news...scroll through your social media feed. Or listen to the candidates. You could easily mistake America as a nation, lost.” It bemoaned the loss of compassion, respect, shared responsibility and a willingness to unite. And went on to conclude that it is not about choices at election time but those made every day.
The ad could as well have been about India. But can you imagine an Indian tycoon positioning himself like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, with the nation and against rabble-rousing? The ads, targeting Donald Trump, show how Schultz, who supported Barack Obama in previous elections, is not chary of taking a political line openly.
As you approach Manhattan from JFK Airport, via the midtown tunnel, you get a superb view of the Manhattan skyline. Almost in the middle is the UN headquarters, with a light-green glass facade, built on space donated by the Rockefellers. Come September, when over a hundred heads of state/government descend on New York, it becomes the destination to which dignitaries and their delegations head from their luxury hotels. The diplomatic security of the US State Department handles their movement, matching security considerations perfectly to VVIP schedules (though, this does churn up the city traffic and rouses the ire of residents). This being election year, both of US president and UN secretary-general, and the Clinton Foundation planning a big function, obviously intending to showcase Hillary if nominated, the hoopla will be greater. Some world leaders may choose to skip it, though, to avoid taking sides. Whether the US gets its first female president or not, at the UN voices are rising for a woman to succeed Ban Ki Moon. Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, currently heading UNESCO, Helen Clark, former New Zealand PM and administrator of UNDP, Natalia Gherman, acting PM of Moldova, or even the Argentinean foreign minister, if regional rotation is abandoned, are some names in play.
The Pope is Argentine and so is soccer god Messi. So how can the next ‘secular pope’, too, be an Argentinean? That’s why an Argentinean surely cannot become UNSG, quipped a wit at the UN.
Former diplomat K.C. Singh served as India’s ambassador to Iran
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