The upside of downtown: New York's 14th Street has transformed into a vibrant hub

Go downtown, sang Petula Clark in 1964. Forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. It's a fun song, but I've never been convinced. Downtown New York in the mid-1960s was far from a jaunty place. Sure, there were beat poets in the Village. And Bob Dylan was not long past regular gigs at its many subterranean music joints. But really, downtown – the area of Manhattan below 14th Street, as New Yorkers define it – was a wasteland. 

That state extended well into the 1980s, when intrepid artists wandered its wide and windy avenues in search of cheap loft space. Uptown was where all the action was: the daring skyscrapers, the priceless cultural assets, the department stores and the fur coats and the fancy hotels.

The 1990s saw the influx of money to neighbourhoods like Tribeca, thanks in part to the growth of lower Manhattan as a finance hub. But downtown's edgy reputation persisted. Consequently, on my first visit to New York City in August 2001, I lingered in the safe confines of Midtown and ventured to the southern tip of Manhattan on the rickety A train precisely once. It was a necessary ordeal, because how else would I see the Twin Towers up close? It was also undeniably nerve-wracking. When I emerged from the World Trade Centre station on a cloudless Sunday during that trip, I found an oddly serene scene. A band played pop standards on the concourse between the two towers, and – with the echo of Sweet Caroline across the skyscrapers – I spied the Statue of Liberty for the first time. When the song ended, it was quiet. Almost eerie, though perhaps I'm imagining that part. 

It wasn't what I had imagined of downtown New York at all. In the years since Bob Dylan and Petula Clark and all the artists had flooded the area, it had become a dull business district. That late summer day in 2001, seagulls gathered by the marina to collect crumbs from the few tourists who came by.

Being New York, where the only constant is change, lower Manhattan transformed again in the 2000s. First, suddenly, and catastrophically; and then, slowly and miraculously. When I visited late last year, it was almost entirely different. The area around the World Trade Centre site, in particular, is unrecognisable, and it's this patch of land which is the fulcrum around which the rest of downtown spins.

After 9/11, the city argued for years about what to do with the real estate. The eventual redevelopment has been received, incredibly, as a success. It's anchored by an audacious architectural project, the multibillion-dollar Oculus. Designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it looks like a winged dove or a beached whale carcass, depending on your perspective. What's inside the Oculus is far less impressive – a train to New Jersey, a Westfield shopping mall, and a lot of sterile white marble – but the sheer scale of it remains exhilarating in a way public works rarely are these days.

Next door to the Oculus is a new World Trade Centre complex, which includes One World Trade (known formerly as Freedom Tower), the tallest building in the western hemisphere. One World Trade resembles a finely cut diamond. It's a study in light and shade: the glimmering tower overlooks the September 11 memorial and museum, which is underground. The museum is, of course, unforgettable; shocking but sensitively and thoughtfully rendered.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of office space in the area – not only at the World Trade Centre, but elsewhere in the financial district – has contributed to downtown's dynamic street life. In addition to the pinstriped workers on Wall Street, there are now thousands in other industries, including in media and advertising.

Those diverse day visitors have had a positive knock-on effect for restaurants and bars. In the past five years or so, downtown has emerged as the most important area of the city for dining. Au Cheval is a new opening I'm particularly excited about; it's an outpost of one of Chicago's best restaurants, known for its iconic burger patty, served alongside a smattering of other modern diner classics. (Think duck heart hash and chilaquiles.)

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The hottest reservation of the moment is at Frenchette, a fact which signals the revival of Gallic fare in an Italian-crazed city. The buzzy bistro serves up an array of natural wines alongside sweetbreads and rotisserie lobster. In a contest with a lot of competition, Frenchette also serves what might be New York's finest steak frites.

You could easily spend a day downtown doing nothing but walking (and eating) like a modern-day flâneur – and then, when the clock turns 5, sip a Manhattan at Evening Bar or the Dead Rabbit or Attaboy or any of the dozens of other cocktail bars which dominate the drinking landscape. But tourism needs a purpose, right? On my most recent trip, I built in some culture with a Lower East Side gallery tour. Since Brooklyn rents spiralled upward, young artists have migrated back to Manhattan and, in particular, a small rectangle of densely packed streets below Houston Street. On Thursday nights, you can wander from gallery to gallery opening, no RSVP required, and take in a new wave of creativity.

I would recommend you end your downtown jaunt as I did, at the new Whitney Museum of American Art. The spectacular Renzo Piano building grazes 14th Street, the very top of downtown. Inside, the Whitney's collection, liberated from its cramped uptown digs, finally has room to breathe. Gazing at a Louise Bourgeois spider, then a Cindy Sherman self-portrait, and an abundance of Warhols, a thought occurs to me. It may have taken a few decades to come true but, in the end, Petula Clark wasn't wrong about downtown. The lights are much brighter here. So linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. Downtown. 

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