JK Rowling's Newt brings magic to New York

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them features many iconic New York landmarks. Photo / AP
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them features many iconic New York landmarks. Photo / AP

"I have faith," says our server, Charles, at New York's Black Barn restaurant, on the night of the US election. Distinguished and earnest, with a mottled moustache, he tells us over ribs and shoestring fries how the Madison Square restaurant recently hosted Hillary Clinton and her campaign team.

He'd managed to ask her husband Bill - while refilling his Diet Coke - what he should say to friends and family thinking of voting for Donald Trump in the upcoming election.

Clinton told him: "There is nowhere in the world you could put my wife, that, after a week of her being there, wouldn't be a better place."

Charles' faith, echoed by almost every New Yorker I meet on November 8, feels distressingly on a par with saying the words, "I believe in magic", when waking up the next day to the unceasing flow of the elephant grey Hudson River and the news that Trump is America's president-elect.

Hours earlier, at an election party strung with increasingly limp balloons in red, white and blue, the only moment of distraction from the results rolling in is discussing what Hogwarts house we'd live in.

"It's not all about Gryffindor!" shouts our host, indignant. "I'm a Hufflepuff - and more people are Hufflepuff than you think!"

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, the latest story to tumble from the imagination of Harry Potter author JK Rowling, is set to be the ultimate moment for secret - and not so secret - Hufflepuffs, traditionally the least revered of Hogwarts' four houses.

The film opened in New Zealand cinemas on November 17. New York, meanwhile, where it's set, is ablaze with Fantastic Beasts posters flying from lamp posts on 5th Avenue and taped haphazardly to grimy subway turnstiles.

The film follows English magizoologist and former Hufflepuff Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), author of one of Harry Potter's text books, who arrives at Ellis Island in 1926 with a magical, Mary Poppins-like trunk, filled with fantastical creatures, some of whom manage to claw their way out of the case...

On screen, the movie ripples with iconic New York landmarks - from Central Park Zoo where Scamander cavorts lustily with an enchanted rhino, to the intricately corniced Woolworth building, whose golden doors reveal the headquarters of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA, the American equivalent to the Ministry of Magic).

In reality, Fantastic Beasts wasn't actually filmed on location.

However, director David Yates and scriptwriter Rowling did explore New York for inspiration, hence why I'm here.

Stationed at the Conrad New York in downtown Manhattan, we're seconds from the 9/11 Memorial and minutes from Battery Park, where you can catch a boat to Ellis Island - the former gateway for millions of immigrants looking for a new life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It's now an area in the grip of regeneration, showing that, while the city hasn't waved a magic wand and miraculously reversed the tragedy wreaked in the 2001 terror attacks, 15 years on from September 11, beauty can be conjured out of rubble.

Where the twin towers once stood are now huge, cascading infinity pools, pulling water eternally down into the earth in glittering sheets, the sound of it thundering through your body as you reflect over the names of the dead.

But it's not morbid, no more so than the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. In a tangled neighbourhood of streets that burst with Chinese supermarkets, where walls are scrawled with street art and blocks are overgrown with metal fire escapes, the museum is a relic from the early 1900s, proving that 1920s New York was not glitz, jazz and flapper dresses for everyone, a fact Fantastic Beasts doesn't shy from.

Our enigmatic tour guide, Jon Pace, tells us how director Yates scouted out the museum - which in 1988 was discovered virtually intact, having been disused since the 1930s - as a blueprint for the apartment of No-Maj (muggle) Jacob, Newt's accidentally acquired sidekick.

The musty, cramped tenement is typical of the type that became home to thousands of German immigrants, in a neighbourhood that was locally named Kleindeutschland ("Little Germany").

The dark, dingy rooms peel snake-like, shedding layers and layers of wallpaper and lino, signs of the numerous families that lived here from 1863 until 1935, when fire safety laws were passed. When updating the building to code proved too expensive, residents were evicted and their homes left to fossilise.

Floors of hemmed-in apartments are stacked atop each other, complete with original interior windows, which at the time were thought wrongly to help stop the spread of tuberculosis in buildings where sprawling families lived crammed together.

In this building alone, more than 100 people shared just seven toilets between them. "Think of the traffic," says Pace, as we trudge up the stairs.

Fantastic Beasts unfurls with themes echoing the 1920s NY immigrant experience.

New York City's Ellis Island. Photo / 123RF
New York City's Ellis Island. Photo / 123RF

Newt faces America's border interrogators at Ellis Island, an outsider bringing with him magical "aliens" and different ideas of how we can live harmoniously.

Today, Ellis Island - the former stately holding pen and entryway for millions fleeing poverty and persecution in their home countries - is a grand and fascinating museum just one island over, and a short and breezy boat ride from the teal beauty of the Statue of Liberty.

From it, you can see the whole of the New York skyline, columns of glittering metal punching up from the watery edges of Manhattan, and you can't help but imagine how devastating it must have been for those who got this close, only to be sent home again as immigration laws became increasingly stringent throughout the Twenties.

On our final night, we sip bitter orange cocktails at Fowler & Wells at The Beekman Hotel, a decadent, moodily lit bar that aspires to speakeasy credentials.

And the talk is all Trump.

Right now, it is difficult to extricate New York from the see-sawing political confusion and outrage - we get caught up in a protest outside Trump Towers and the emotional wattage of the crowd is enough to leave you fizzing with anxiety for the future - but there is still masses of magic to be found here.

Hopefully, in spite of who occupies the White House, New Yorkers - whatever their background - will continue to have no trouble conjuring up faith in their city and in each other.

- AAP

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