Sunday, May 01, 2005

DEATH OF A DREAM. I took a stroll by the former Plaza Hotel this fine Spring afternoon. In its day, the Plaza was a monument to all that was splendid in the Big Apple – the gold standard of hospitality, the home of Eloise, the monogrammed bathrobe at the end of the rainbow for countless mid-level managers.

But that Plaza is gone. In its place stands a cruel mockery: Its windows, as high as rocks can reach, have been brutally shattered, and rough workmen’s planks obscure their once-majestic views. The fabled doors, once guarded by proud men in splendid uniforms, now swing loose on their hinges, freely admitting squatters and prostitutes -- not the new Plaza’s guests, but its masters. Its white fa├žade has been pitted by gunfire and scarred by graffiti; the scrawled legend BROKEN PROMISES looms over a family of three huddled against the north wall, sharing a makeshift supper.

The Oak Bar, in former days redolent of expensive cologne and fine wines, today reeks of crack cocaine. A visitor to the capacious bathrooms receives, instead of a gentle whisking of the shoulders and a posture suggesting that a tip would be appreciated, blows to the head and a rough frisking.

"This our house now," says "Crick," a self-styled "Customer Service representative" who patrols the lobby, a baseball bat in his right hand and a Blunt perched insouciantly between his teeth. "You got any problems, you fill out a card an’ give it to the desk clerk."

The effects of the Plaza’s decline reach far beyond its own walls. High life has drained from Fifth Avenue. Brooks Brothers is now a Dress Barn. Elizabeth Arden is a nail salon. Only the NBA store thrives. This famed thoroughfare, where splendid Easter bonnets were so recently displayed, is deserted after nightfall. "Since the Plaza moved to mixed-used, Fifth Avenue is a no-go zone," admits a weary-looking Sgt. William Daniels of the NYPD. "We only come in at dawn to carry out the dead."

"This is a wake-up call to our fellow citizens," declares Business Improvement District President Charles F. Gordon from behind the sandbag barricades of what was once F.A.O. Schwartz. "It’s too late for the Plaza, but for Christ's sake, keep the Helmsley open. Because if they get the Helmsley, it’s just a short hop to the Oyster Bar, and then God help New York!"

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