I came up relatively poor, which means I traveled very little. For family vacations we went camping in the nearby canyon or took roadtrips to visit relatives in exotic locations such as Sacramento or Anaheim. I first traveled via airplane as an undergraduate, tagging along on a school trip with friends visiting San Francisco. At that point I fell in love with San Francisco, or at least with a sparkly version of it already disappearing, not in a haze of pot smoke as one might assume, but a dank murk of money brought about by human ingenuity in late capitalism.
In summer 2002, I took a 10-week backpacking trip through Europe with friends, paid for with student loans (shhh…I learned so much, I promise!) As I traveled through the capitals of Europe—London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Athens—I felt a tickling weirdness as I explored these foreign cities but had never visited America’s #1 city. No, not Washington D.C. New York.
My affinity for New York came to my awareness when, on September 11, 2001, terrorists flew planes into the city’s World Trade Center towers, causing both of them to collapse. The terrorists also flew a plane into the Pentagon building, and another plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania when the passengers revolted. When the attacks happened, I was in Salt Lake City, where I grew up. I’ve always identified as a Western girl, but the attack on New York felt not only shocking and heartbreaking but also personal. An attack on New York felt like an attack on us all.
After graduate school, I got a job that required a fair bit of travel. In the first year or so, the novelty delighted me. Not only did I get to stay in nice hotels and pay for food with a business credit card, I got to see wonderful American cities—Philadelphia, New Orleans, Seattle, even Washington D.C.
I expected to love D.C. I had friends and colleagues who named it their favorite American city. Instead, I found it slick and boring, its museums and monuments clusters of detritus, scrubbed of history and then re-formatted to display a country more interested in mythologizing itself than in actually knowing itself. D.C. fascinates me. It also makes me mad. D.C. needs to go to therapy.
But at last, at last, this job gave me an excuse to go to New York. The moment I came up from Penn Station, mistakenly thinking I had to go to street level to find the subway, the handle of a wheeley suitcase clutched in my hand, the city took my breath away with the sheer, overwhelming New Yorkness of it—a street crowded with cars and yellow cabs, sidewalks jammed with pedestrians, Madison Square Garden looming over me. I stumbled my way back downstairs, fumbled my way through the subway gates, and finally caught my breath as I sat down on the train to Brooklyn.
Once in Brooklyn, I stowed my suitcase in the museum and visited the art and the park (a trick I pulled again with my sister as we were leaving the city this past October). Everything felt new and vital and alive but also old and imposing and brassy a.f. As I spent the next several days touring the city with my friend, and also myself, I sensed that I could belong to New York.
Only Paris rivals New York for cities represented in art. But novels of Paris, particularly from the 20th century onward, tend to shower the city in pink light, glamorizing its unique, dignified beauty. Novels about New York tend to emphasize the false glitz of the city’s sparkle, the way it represents capitalist depravity, violence, poverty, grit. New York will suck your dreams out your nostrils and then choke you with them.
And yet I cannot help thinking of the books that celebrate New York, perhaps none so poignantly as The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. At one point, narrator Nick Carraway asserts, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and all the beauty in the world.” And it makes sense that this book would sit itself in and around New York City. Gatsby is about American striving, the whispered promises of capitalism, the obscured system of class that bullies our country (as well as white supremacy and misogyny, despite Fitzgerald’s intentions). It’s about the harsh realism that dreams cannot come true and its an ode to the beauty of dreaming nevertheless. It is, in short, about New York.
Nick Carraway remains one of the literature’s weirdest of wet noodle narrators. And yet I, too, am an observer and a digester more than a live-r and a doer. Perhaps that applies to most writers and readers. And so I see myself when Nick says, “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” New York invites this kind of watching and absorbing as much as it invites anything else.
Still, my imaginary of New York comes more from movies then books. Film has a way of lovingly rendering the city, no matter the context or story it aims to tell. It can be shot in romantic glory by Nora Ephron in When Harry Met Sally or gritty darkness by Martin Scorcese in, well, almost anything, or sweaty vivacity by Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing or hazy nostalgia by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather. New York photographs well.
Which is all a long way to say that my heart grieves right now for New York, a city taking gut-punch after gut-punch from COVID-19. As with 9/11, New York bears the brunt of the horror for the rest of us. In the US, 34,000 people have died, as of 2:30pmET today according the New York Times. Over 13,000 of those death happened in New York, and over 8000 in and around the city specifically. And because white supremacy and injustice put their sticky fingers into everything that happens in America, black and brown people are suffering and dying from the virus at higher rates than other groups, including in New York. In my experience and my imagination, New York represents ceaseless, writhing, teeming vitality. And it has fallen quiet.
So it feels like a touch from the universe that today I cracked open N. K. Jemisin’s new book The City We Became and discovered that it’s a New York book, or at least it seems so at this point. I knew it was about cities being sentient but I did not expect the epitaph to hit me with the force of a skyscraper-canyon gust:
“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” —Thomas Wolfe
In the prologue to this book, a young, poor black man sings the city. He paints it. And he defends it in order to bring the city out of gestation and into existence. I need this book right now.
Gertrude Stein famously wrote, “America is my country but Paris is my hometown.” For my part, I’ll state, the American West is my country, but New York is my City.
Stay strong, NYC. We see you.