New York used to be the objective. I remember my first time there clearly – first I saw the skyline of downtown from the Jersey City Waterfront, and then I was on the streets, looking at the Twin Towers directly above my head. I was a teenager and no place had ever seemed so desirable. I remember a similar feeling of wonder on a second trip, while taking in Times Square at night. There was nothing original about my first encounters with New York, but I had grown up in a small town, seen very little of the world and New York left me in awe.
During college up in Westchester, it seemed automatic when imagining my post-collegiate life that I would end up there. Never mind that whenever I would go into the city, especially in my first year, with all of those options at a hand I never knew quite what to do. I would go to the Met and delight in paying only a quarter to get in, as my first-year studies professor advised me to do – though I didn’t really know what I was looking at. I went to a terrible concert at Webster Hall with my roommates once where I counted the minutes until we could take the train back to Westchester. We would walk up and down St. Mark’s Place, where one time I accompanied a friend of mine while she bought a fake ID. Another time, in an attempt to “get to know the outer boroughs,” we took the 7 train to the 1st or 2nd stop in Queens and, having left the subway and finding ourselves in an unremarkable part of town, didn’t get much past breakfast at the first diner we saw. Needless to say, though I loved New York’s energy and fantasized about being a local, at the age of 17 and freshly arrived from rural upstate New York, I really had no idea where to start.
With time I grew more comfortable in the city, learning how to take what I wanted from it, but it never really became mine. Still, I never excluded the possibility that I would end up there. For a long time after going to Italy, the idea that New York would always be there and that I could always come back to finally make it my home was a comfort to me, it made me feel less uncertain about the decision to make a long-term move to another country. Going back to New York was always a pleasure, and often, when in one trip I wouldn’t have enough time to see all of the friends and family who were living there, I would feel a pull to them and to the city, as if despite my love for Italy, New York was really the proper place for me.
My most recent trip to New York did not leave me with that feeling. I was there for 4 days in August, primarily as a tourist. In visiting New York with a total newcomer, I had been looking forward to really seeing the city and all those landmarks that in 10 years of regular travel to Manhattan I had always snubbed so as to distinguish myself from the typical passer-through. What did you do in New York? the Italians would ask me, when I would come back from a visit. What did I do? I would think, I walked the streets with my friends and socialized and delighted in feeling utterly at home in the greatest city on earth. I wasn’t there to climb the Empire State Building.
This time, I left the snark in Italy and took an admirable stab at some of the classics on the list – the Staten Island Ferry, a long walk through Central Park, a tour of the United Nations complex, the Chelsea Market, Wall Street. But nothing glowed like it once did. In many ways the town seemed like a caricature of itself: slightly ludicrous, unnecessarily exaggerated. Everything that used to excite me took on a different hue – the variety of restaurants is endless, yet everyone is fighting to get into the same places; the pace is exhilarating, but people work so hard that they completely neglect to live their marvelous city; this time around those effortlessly chic natives seemed to be playacting the part of “New Yorker.”
A recent article in the New York Times really struck a chord, in light of my recent visit:
I marveled at the High Line, the first time I walked it about a year and a half ago, particularly struck by New York’s ability to look at what had already long been there, recognize its potential and from that promise create an entirely new landmark. It wasn’t just a new restaurant or a new gallery – it was a new reference point. I still find the park to be delightful and enjoy it, but I think only because I’m a visitor. I can’t imagine being a New Yorker and witnessing yet another example of unchecked development turning a neighborhood into a place that no longer belongs to me. Sure, New Yorkers can go and walk the High Line on a sunny day, but they do so while dodging throngs of tourists like me who are walking too slowly and taking too many pictures – and I’m one of the good ones! I know the rule about staying to the right! And what of the ever rising real estate prices and continuing gentrification, here, as elsewhere in the city? Indignation seems like the only logical response to what’s happening.
I perused the author’s blog a bit, after reading the article: http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.it/. Does his perspective resonate with a lot of New Yorkers? Are there any “real” New Yorkers left, or, as the article and author suggest, will the city ultimately be defined only by its 1%? And, if that’s true, why do people continue to buy into the idea of New York? I understand the initial draw, but in the end, what keeps them there?
I used to get it. I used to want it. This time around, I struggled to remember why.