New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant. It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.…
E.B. White, Here is New York, 1949
I grew up in Detroit when a 10-year-old could still take the city bus across town to her music lesson. Could trick-or-treat on dark city streets on Halloween with hundreds of neighborhood kids.
Detroit was segregated then, but the rage hadn’t yet burst into flame, so from a kid’s-eye view, it was a good place to grow up.
When I returned a decade later to attend college and live in what had become the ghetto, the innocence was long gone. Vacant houses were littered throughout the city. They became drug houses or tinder for pre-Halloween Devil’s Night fires. Gangs had sprung up. Institutions for the mentally ill had emptied into the parts of town where nobody else wanted to live, which happened to be where I lived.
The city had begun its 40-year descent into Third World status. During the years I lived there in the 1970s, Detroit was the Murder Capital of the World. It was a city that no longer worked.
I expected New York City to be something like this. I expected it to be a place where you had to know your way around, where you had to avoid the no-man’s-land and the war zones. Where you had to be hyper-vigilant of your surroundings at all times—because you just never knew.
I was so wrong.
New York totally works, and not just in the tourist areas. In the neighborhoods, in the Bronx, in Harlem, families are on the street, and kids are in the playground. Old people toddle around unafraid and unmolested. Teens are—just teens, not the scary gangs of predators I remember. Of course, there’s an underbelly—there has to be—but it doesn’t smack you in the face every day. You can walk down the street, even at night. You can take the subway or the bus and get where you want to go without too much delay or hassle.
Green spaces aren’t just scrubby fields of broken glass. They are maintained and landscaped with flowers that nobody vandalizes, and there are lots of them. Garbage is picked up; streets are cleaned; trees are planted. Landlords hose down their sidewalks and pick up litter. Greenmarkets operate in neighborhoods year-round, so city people can buy meat and produce from the country. (In my neighborhood, the greenmarket was set up in a nearby street every Saturday.)
Besides all that, New York is mythic. This is the city in which writers and artists strain their metaphors and stumble over their exclamation points to capture its essence.
Go downtown and you might see a movie being filmed. Turn on national news, and chances are the interviews are happening in New York. For decades, New York has fed the creative juices of those writers and musicians and artists. It’s fed the greed of bankers and brokers; the ambitions of magnates and captains of industry. It’s host to the world’s political leaders and a magnet for the world’s ordinary people.
And there are armies of ordinary people. New York is a city of the world’s villages. People from every imaginable corner of the globe carve out a few blocks of apartments, and call it home. Accents are from everywhere. In some neighborhoods people don’t speak English. Then, in the subway and on the street, they all swirl and mix together, and no one cares.
I’ve never been in a place so diverse and so equal, and I found it endlessly colorful and liberating.
New York is overwhelming—larger than life—in its massed humanity, in its pace and vitality, and in the anonymity it bestows equally on almost everyone. In the canyons of buildings that block the sun and in the clotted mass of people waiting for the light to change at 34th and Broadway, you feel your insignificance in the pit of your stomach. Yet somehow you belong to this great machine; you’re part of the rush and hustle. You’re anonymous, yet you have as much right to the square of sidewalk you inhabit as anyone else.
I never expected to love New York. I came with a Midwesterner’s scorn and mistrust of New York snobbery—the sense that New Yorkers think they are the center of the universe. That anything worthwhile must come from New York, which makes it cooler, smarter, more stylish. And if it doesn’t come from New York, it’s a bit stale maybe with a whiff of manure.
Then I discovered that New York IS the center of the universe.
I grudgingly had to admit that New York has a serious coolness factor. We in the hinterlands have our wide open spaces and fresh air and mountains and blue water, but New York has a deep, throbbing heart of human creativity and vitality that is somehow addictive.
But really, I don’t know why I came to love New York. Something about the place gets under your skin. If you’ve ever been here, what do you love about New York?