Find Your New York City

While staying at the New York Hilton Midtown to attend the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference this week, I watched the vacationing children pose with an interactive screen in the lobby. Their parents photographed them in front of several iconic New York scenes, as indeed they could at the actual site, should the family travel to view them in person (although I understood the value of the distraction in air conditioning). The interactive screen beckoned with “Find Your New York City,” and I wondered how I could do exactly that in the limited time I had outside of conference sessions and the agent pitch slam.

My New York City is broken into several chunks of time, all somewhere, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, but gone, according to me.

Born in Brooklyn, I spent my formative years there (show me the girl at seven and I’ll give you the woman). We moved a short distance out of the city (my father, a Philadelphian, was disturbed by my childish Brooklyn accent), but it remained our city, and then in dribs and drabs, we all moved back.

I lived in Manhattan for a peripatetic period when I was a twenty-something woman. In six years I lived in three apartments in West Greenwich Village, one in Yorkville, one in what was the Hungarian neighborhood of the East 70s, one in the East Village on Avenue A (but only very briefly: the cockroaches threw me out on my ear), and last, on West 69th Street between Central Park West and Columbus, bordering the Columbus end of the block. I left that apartment for Boston, and never returned to live in New York.

Walking in the mornings for exercise this week, or out in search of lunch, I found something of what was my New York City: Sabrett hot dog men, dashing and annoyed New Yorkers, exhausted and fleeced tourists, Carnegie Hall and Central Park, the sound of the streets, the brutality of the smells, good and bad, and the light, filtered through the haze of the traffic and the heat. I photographed the Art Students League for my wife, who had been a student there as a teenager. In the hotel staff and on the streets, I found people from all over the world, working and living in the city, making it their city. I found a phone box, albeit more like a carrel, with a man standing in it and screaming at no one; that seemed like a real throw back.

I didn’t find my former profound understanding of the transit system, although I could navigate the streets easily, and I found that I had no tolerance for the recklessness of cab drivers and jaywalkers. I found Trump Tower, an inevitable affair, standing on the former spot of the opulent building graced with Art Deco statues that had held the department store Bonwit Teller, lost thanks to the builder of the tower in 1980. Few of the regal stores on Fifth Avenue were still there. Naturally, I found the prices exorbitant and the bagels large and puffy, but I’d known about all of that for some time.

As I walked across Central Park I found a clean, well-cared for and well-used park, unlike the dirty, shabby and dangerous stretch it had been. I walked to my last apartment on West 69th St., one of a handsome threesome of brownstones with beautifully arched entrances. Unfortunately, the new owners had gutted what had been a real library from my old apartment, complete with built-in floor to ceiling shelves and rolling ladders, in order to add retail space (unoccupied as of this week).

I connected with my cousin, a young woman who came to New York to find her future. All other family members live elsewhere or can be found only by Einstein’s theory. The same can be said for friends, but that didn’t stop me from scanning the faces of the throngs, just in case.

Finding the city that was my place of birth and breeding, I failed to find the city that was my stomping ground: I couldn’t find my New York City.

10 thoughts on “Find Your New York City

  1. that’s the big apple, but also there are still some quiet neighborhoods where the people who work at the cleaners, fish market, bakery, coffee place, super market know you just as they do in Hawley and Charlemont. However the noise and congestion, hot days, crazy people seem to be greater than a few years ago. Do remember in NYC there is always something of someone to stare? look at? at least that what my kids always said when we hopped on a bus or subway.

    1. Nora Ephron wrote something like, “New York is not a great place to visit, but it is a great place to live.” Once you no longer live there, no matter how many years you lived there previously, you’re a visitor.

  2. I suppose none of us finds her past New York, and the abstraction of a possible future New York for ourself seems improbable, but the fact remains as it always has: spend enough time in new York, plant yourself there, and soon the roots reappear and New York presents itself to you. That New York remains ripe with possibility and potential is one of its glories. Your observance of the seeming absurdity of tourists photographing their offspring before images of New York when the real thing lay just outside the hotel’s door, more than hints that you’ve not lost your New Yorker’s bafflement at the things tourists seem to feel they must do. I don’t know about you, but your piece made me miss New York (smells and crowds and noises included) and wonder how I might live there once again. My current canine companion would be frozen in terror at the prospect of a walk on a Manhattan street, but I raised another dog on the Upper West Side and he epitomized, with dachshund bravura, the joy and ecstasy and rush of energy that can be found on a New York sidewalk. I need to find another Manhattan mutt and together we’ll reclaim our stretch of the block.
    See what your writing has done? I thank you for it.

    1. Thank you Peter. I refer you to the wonderful Nora Ephron’s New Yorker piece,, especially her refute of the old sage, something like, “New York’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” and the fact that the opposite is true. I felt that very deeply last August and this one especially. You are not the first person to defend New York in response to my piece, but there’s no need, and my response is that my skills did not convey my feelings adequately, for which I apologize. All I can say is that my feelings for New York are very deep, complicated,almost genetic, and not easily communicated, even to myself.

  3. I think that your New York isn’t available to the ones who are there today (at least not in tangible form, though you do invoke it in writing, certainly). But, on the other hand, it’s not really gone, either. That New York, the one you absorbed in your first 28 years, is very present and alive in memory, feeling, imagination, in what you know; it made you who you are. It’s possible that the half-week spent living in a midtown hotel, attending a high-energy conference didn’t provide you with the kind of space and time it would take to get back into the dance of life in New York. The rhythms and moves of life there are in our blood and with time, with a place to live that is an authentic living space, with real errands to run and work to do, it’d all come rushing back.

    1. I agree. I was not attacking today’s New York, just my disconnection, which is understandable. Unfortunately, unless we win the next Powerball, my experience will have to remain one of an attendee at a midtown conference, but I must admit, I’m not sure that’s not just fine.

  4. I came to NYC as a young women in 1969 and lived at first in Columbia University housing when Jerry taught there. We later moved Brooklyn and stayed in the city for 30 years. So my NYC changed a lot while I was there and it changed me. I came to appreciate the variety which you so aptly describe in this piece. The enormity of the city ceased to trouble me because the details were so interesting. But when I go back I find that I can’t navigate it very well anymore. Your piece reminds me vividly of this lack of the old easy familiarity. But I still love the place.

    1. A “lack of the old easy familiarity” is a perfect description of my experience. I’m not sure how I would feel should I spend a longer time there with more time to wander, and in a different neighborhood, i.e., a real one. I wonder. Nora Ephron countered the old adage “New York is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there, ” with “New York is a terrible place to visit and a great place to live.” I think that’s basically true, regardless of the era (except for the cost of renting) and it’s made me understand that I am a visitor.

  5. This brings back such memories of my time in New York as a child and early teen. Although we lived in Staten Island I can still smell Manhattan from when I would visit my father a ferry’s-ride away. After we moved to Canada with my step-father I would still visit until after 9-11 when my father moved away from the big city – away from the ptsd and the army and all else that it had turned into. I haven’t been back since. Mostly because, like you, I don’t think it will be MY New York anymore. Thanks for the memories. đŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Amanda for your memory. The 9/11 stuff is long gone, so if you go back, especially to SI and a ferry trip, you’ll find something of your own there, but NYC is different. All cities change and it has: for better and for worse in my view. I’m new to blogging, so may I ask how you found me? Please subscribe and continue to comment.

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