This is the story of a city.
A city so romanticized, so heavily weighed down by dreams, desires, and outlandish expectations as to receive an incommensurate backlash from people disappointed that it couldn’t fulfill their wildest hopes (can anything?) Welcome to New York City, the city of too many nicknames, less a city, and now the target for mass cultural frustration with corporations, big government, bureaucracy, now that partner who promised unconditional love and support but really just gets into bed all bloated, belchy, sweaty and just gross.
A love soured into deep resentment.
There is something a bit skewed and perhaps grotesque about the manner of argumentation you see in some of these essays, as if you could simply tally the pros and cons of a city like a point system and come out with a concrete conclusion: Museums vs. poverty, a dizzying pulse vs. apathy and cruel competition, a pervasive push to excellence vs. a stifling arrogance and the list could go on for a while. I find this method baffling, because look, if you fell out of love with this city, then great, you do you, but to shit on it feels puerile, the timid and sterile anger of a teenager. Moreover, do we really think and feel like that? The tallying method feels so inhuman, so mechanical, as if love made sense, or needs to make sense.
Still, I cannot refrain from getting down in the mud to defend my first, and so far, only home. I grew up in the Orthodox Jewish part of Brooklyn. We went to the city infrequently enough to still feel like tourists when we got off at the messy, streets of Time Square with the upward-looking treadmill walking foreigners, clogging the streets ogling the gaudiness of advertising. I can’t say I fell in love at those moments, but I felt electric, alive with potential, inchoately aware of the chaos stirring within me. I don’t know that the city itself contains anything of the sort, but it elicited a discomfiting visceral response that demanded something of me: penance, a sacrifice, unconditional love, excellence that, until this day, I have not lived down. Our family, to celebrate the intermediary days of the holidays, began to scrounge what money we could and buy Broadway tickets. Suffice to say we never really did anything, in my teenage years, as a family, but Broadway, man oh man, seeing Mary Louise Parker in Proof, her ability to act just for you, her staggering presence and beauty, I felt important, a part of something larger than myself for the first time.
Growing up in Brooklyn, before the hipsters arrived, I felt as if I was living in the shadow of once-greatness. My community was dying, awaiting rebirth, and Manhattan stood as the height of actual lived life. The idea of a stable, comfortable home haunted me in its absence, as I went from Israel, to Washington Heights for college. In Washington Heights, I began to feel what I would later realize is something many just call the comforts and safety of home. Navigating the zealously religious community of my University with the vibrantly alive and loud community of locals, with freezerfuls of Corona restocked and finished every night, I felt overwhelmed by this strange group of blocks exploding with difference. One day, in my 5th year in the Heights, walking back alone in the middle of the day from my Duane Reade, a young teenage girl grabbed my Yeshiva boy ass and hooted, damn, “That’s some nice Jew boy,” (it’s actually nothing to write home about, I promise). I don’t tell this story because I felt violated (maybe I should?), but because I felt like I belonged. I was a real part of her scenery, her life, and she was part of mine. The feeling only grew when I moved to the oft-criticized Upper West Side. But it is here that I feel warm and loved and loving and connected.
Of course, so much of this is subjective. Cheryl Strayed’s sudden realization of the apathy of people cannot be denied, but no one can deny the opposite experiences either. Besides the obviousness of apathy everywhere, I experience the communal warmth of NYC daily. I know all of the regulars in my bodega (Shorty, Idris…) and all of the regulars in my Diner (too many too list). I know the homeless man who asks for money outside of the Hot and Crusty. I know the workers in 16 Handles way too well, the same for the staff at the legendary pizza store, Sal and Carmine’s, or the efficient and smiley staff at Lenny’s Bagels.
Others I don’t know by name, but by sight, and we smile at each other, or sometimes roll our eyes: the woman who takes care of the flower garden on 89th, the man who cleans up the place where I secretly smoke illicit cigarettes with friends, the doormen of the apartments next to me, the cab driver who is now my friend on Facebook, the impeccably dressed intolerably cute French couple I see always cuddling on the way to work. Countless stories occur everyday on the train that if cherished, could reinvigorate something as quaint as belief in humanity. The man who engaged me in a long conversation about God after seeing me in a Kippah while reading Christopher Hitchens, the time I bled from my nose on a crowded train and a woman gave me her whole packet of tissues, in transit flirtations, those who help people with their strollers down the stairs, the performers who appreciate when you clap, the people who hand out the free newspapers and smiles in the morning. (I haven’t even begun to talk about the endless beauty and insanity of Central Park.)
I know my streets, the humming and restless Broadway, the wild and vocal Amsterdam, the aristocratic West End, the suburbs of Columbus, the elitist bookends of Central Park West and Riverside. Our trains contain beautiful art and poetry, Banksy comes here to give us the gift of 30 days of his art, Jay Z and the National perform ridiculous pieces of performance art, Occupy Wall Street started here, history happens here, daily, a thriving community of Jewish LGBTQ people live here and make me feel still part of history.
I forget the tally at this point, and maybe that’s exactly the point.
Hatred of cities, especially NYC, tends to bring along some valorization of more rural areas, as if the rural signals a return to a verdant Eden where people all of a sudden act only with altruism, would never step over a homeless person, care about the poor, and create a community of kindness with animals, and meditation, and unicorns and lollipops. Did we forget about the stifling nature of small towns, or does hatred of one place makes us forget the balance of positivity and negativity of everywhere we reside? Or maybe we should lionize the suburbs, which to me seems the epitome of irony given their hated status in our cultural memory. All places will offer unique opportunities and downsides, no ideal living space exists, and for the most part a place will consist not only of how it affects us, but how we affect it, the choices we make.
Worse yet, is the pervasive sense of defeatism in the recent spate of criticism. These stories of scorned, deflated love and resentment, betray a passive attitude. The city, we are told, has gone to shit, too many chains store, too safe and limited, to unrepentant in its arrogance, too rich, too apathetic that the only sane response is to leave, and to shatter this Romantic notion of the New York City as a sort of altruistic gesture for future people who will only feel let down, and to then find the beauty and glory outside of this benighted city. Ironically, to me, this smacks of the same apathy that many now decry. Instead of simply complaining and leaving, why either leave the city alone, or stay and try to create some real change? Criticism, especially negative criticism is easy, and often cheap. Who can’t find 1,000 reasons to hate the city, but true criticism demands action, dedication, and commitment. It’s not enough to just see something and say something, as those awful signs say, but to do something.
Because that’s what NYC has always meant to me, past the expectations, past the noise, and past the inflated desires NYC, for me, signifies the greatest question and demand in life. Everyday I wake up and get coffee from Marcus, or Rena, or Tim and I can feel the city asking, “So, nu, what can you show me today? I’ve seen everything under the sun and then some, who do you think you are, what do you think you can accomplish. Do something to impress me” and everyday I try to achieve something, whether in relationships or in my work, worthy of this city’s history. Because in the end, I know that nothing I, or a host of amazing and talented writers say about this city will actually affect the city. This insane and gorgeous city will go on being itself, will live as a legend for years to come, and I feel eternally grateful to be a meager part of it all.