Foreign Correspondence: how Sex and the City changed New York

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Sex and the City. The television series is still loved by many, but there's been a lot of hand-wringing recently about its legacy: it wasn't sufficiently diverse in its casting choices; it sped up the gentrification of New York City; it promoted an idealised and impossible lifestyle.

Illustration by Simon Letch.

Illustration by Simon Letch.

Yet even Candace Bushnell, whose book of newspaper columns the show was based on, was not exactly living the glamorous existence of her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw. When she started writing her column in the New York Observer – now owned by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner – Bushnell was 35 and sleeping on a friend's pull-out sofa.

By the time I moved to New York in 2005, Sex and the City had been over for a year. Its legacy, though, was everywhere. Magnolia Bakery, the West Village shop featured in the show, had to be the only cupcake vendor in the world with a bouncer for crowd control.

Around the corner from Magnolia was the brownstone home of the show's star, Sarah Jessica Parker. Bus tours stopped there multiple times a day for a photo; I know this because I lived in the neighbourhood and found myself cursing the hordes of snappers out the front when I was rushing to a social engagement. (Everyone in New York is always rushing to a social engagement.)

Who was I to complain?

Along with everyone else, I had delighted in the show's portrayal of intimate, loving friendships. Even now, in the golden age of television, it's hard to think of another depiction of women talking to each other with such frankness and joy. And, as a young woman in New York, I revelled in the city's ability to dispense freedom and safety in equal measure – just as Carrie had done before me, albeit with a better wardrobe. Over 11 years of long work days and late-night wanderings in Manhattan, I never felt out of place or unsafe.

When I once saw SJP, as she is affectionately known, leaving my favourite restaurant on a balmy summer's evening just as I was entering, it was impossible not to feel a frisson of excitement – a sense that I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

Just as the Sex and the City anniversary celebrations reached fever pitch in recent weeks, news broke that the fashion designer Kate Spade had died at age 55. She and Bushnell were contemporaries in '90s New York, and at the height of her brand's empire, a Kate Spade handbag represented all the possibility and opportunity of the city itself.

That it was made from a utilitarian black nylon was no coincidence; that practical material was a sign that its wearer was ready to roll up her sleeves and work.

Like most New Yorkers, Spade came from somewhere else: she was born in Kansas City, quintessential "flyover country", and her father was in construction.

Moving to New York in her 20s, she was free to reinvent herself. Clearly, that metamorphosis came at a tragic price.

But when I see commentators question why news of her death received so much attention, I wonder if they also dismiss Sex and the City as fluffy nonsense. Both were genuine pop culture phenomena that inspired countless women to shape their own futures – New York, and out of it too.

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