My family is one of those New York clans straight out of Seinfeld—we debate our fastest times taking the Van Wyck to JFK, we tell people about new restaurants by saying, "Oh my God, you have to try it—it's the best," and any suggestion that someone might move out of the five boroughs is treated as if they were talking about heading off to Syria. When my parents moved out of Queens and Brooklyn, where they were both raised, they stayed close, landing in a town at the border of Queens and Long Island's Nassau County. My aunts and uncles didn't make it far either. To them (and me), the question has always been, why leave?
If you ask some people that question, they'll give you a whole list of reasons. The rent is too damn high, and getting higher. Gentrification is destroying the fabric of the city and driving impoverished minority populations out of their homes. The weather is lousy for most of the year. It's cramped and crowded and user-unfriendly, and doesn't even have the anything-goes trashiness that made it fun—witness, for instance, the crackdown on topless ladies in Times Square.
But to my family and thousands of other New Yorkers, no matter how high the rents get, or how gilded it all becomes, or how many "Goodbye to All That" rip-off essays get penned, New York will always be what it always has been: the greatest city in the world.
Here are their stories:
In the high rises, complexes, and condos of modern New York, your neighbors tend to exist mostly as names on buzzers. I've lived in buildings for an entire year without meeting the people I shared a wall with. But Astoria, where I live now, is an exception; the apartments here are true Queens residences: homely, small, and friendly. That's how I met Jamie Jinette.
My neighbor and his family moved here from Colombia 12 years ago, when he was 26, to find safety and opportunity from a country that was succumbing to violence and an economic downturn. He started off in Queens Village ("In the beginning, you just rent a basement, and make your way up," he says), moved to Astoria soon after, and has lived here ever since. He now owns a dry-cleaning business just around the block from our apartment.
To him, New York has everything someone looking for a new home could want:
All the people you get to know, from different cultures: That's something you're looking for, and you appreciate it. You don't find that in other places. In Colombia, you'd see that in certain areas, but not like in New York. That's something that, if you're an outsider, it really captures your attention. If you're open, you can learn a lot from these different cultures, from the food to the ideas. That's the reason you stay. And even in the years that are rough, there's always opportunity here, if you're willing to do it. I guess, after a while, you get to become part of the community. It's your house now.
When Thanu Yakupitiyage graduated college and moved to New York in 2007, the city—and the country, for that matter—was in rough shape.
Lehman Brothers had just collapsed Downtown, and Bear Stearns, along with the rest of the global financial system, would soon follow. The impact left Thanu scrambling to make rent in a city she was totally new to: Before attending college in Massachusetts, Thanu, a Sri Lankan by birth, lived in Bangkok, where she was raised in an expat community. When she arrived in New York, she had no work visa, so she hustled her way through restaurants and helped with research for The Accidental American by Rinku Sen, a book about the undocumented immigrants who worked at Windows on the World, the restaurant that was at the top of the World Trade Center.
The two positions inspired her to now work as the communications manager for the New York Immigration Coalition, which advocates for immigrants like herself in legal and economic struggles. She also DJs all over the city. But it was in those kitchens where she learned what coming to the Big Apple was all about:
People came to New York for a better life. People came because they needed to earn in dollars and send money home to their families. They wanted a better education. Some of them were escaping violence, or part of the LGBT community and couldn't be gay at home. These are all the reasons why people come to New York. You have to find something that you can't find in other places… And I think there's a sort of freedom that I haven't be able to experience anywhere else.
Tren'ness Woods-Black has worked in Sylvia's since she was a young girl. During her life, the Harlem soul food joint—named after her grandmother, the "Queen of Soul Food," Sylvia Woods—has transformed into a renowned cultural institution. Now Tren'ness is in charge of the restaurant's communications, and has extended its influence beyond its doors. As a small business advocate, she helps organize the annual Harlem EatUp! Festival, which showcases local cuisines and is part of a larger entrepreneurial association called Harlem Park to Park.
The energy of this city is unlike no other. It's definitely twofold: It's good because it's this sense of "I've gotta get it done." The energy of the city keeps me here. It's like that hustle gene. When you're at an airport in a different state, and the plane lands in that particular state, everyone gradually gets up. But in New York, when your flight lands with a bunch of New Yorkers on it, everyone's up and headed toward the door. "OK, time's a wasting, I've gotta get it done…" A lot of other places are a bit more segregated, in a sense. The atmosphere doesn't lend itself to what New York has to offer. That's why celebrities like to live here; there's not the horde of paparazzi following them, like on the West Coast. They can blend in and just do their thing. Everyone is like, "I know that the person walking next to me has their own life, their own mission, and that's what they're about."
Greg Young and Tom Meyers's informal yet highly educational podcast, " The Bowery Boys," started off in 2007 as a fascination the two had with the streets they walked on every day. It remains a side project—Young works for Sony, and Meyers owns a travel website—but they've been at it for 184 weekly episodes. In this city, they say, change has always been a constant: a perpetual push forward, with accompanying perpetual pushbacks. Our anxiety stems from how fast changes are happening now, but by dissecting the layers of history on each and every block, they argue we can better understand what's going on.
On coming to New York:
GREG: I moved here because I came from the Bible Belt, and I was closeted. So, what New York offered to me was the freedom to be myself. And you know what? In 2015, you can still come to New York and have that very same feeling. Those things, to me personally, haven't changed. When you come here to escape a background, or whether to gain knowledge, or whether to become a richer person, New York has always had that opportunity.
On its history:
TOM: The things that we saw as the quintessential New York—those things that give the accent that may be missing now—probably had already replaced something else before those people lamented. So sometimes, we start this lamentation process and reset it with our own experiences. Everybody's going to raise objections and start heckling… But New York, at its core, is a hyper-competitive city. It was founded as a trading city; it wasn't founded as a Puritanical retreat. It wasn't a place for people to finally practice their religious beliefs, like other settlements. This was a company town, and that has fueled multiethnic openness and multi-religious tolerance. It has made the city more open to others, but everybody is banded together in pushing forward to make it for themselves.
Photo via Flickr user Michael Dolan
Growing up in Astoria, Michael Stahl's world was marked by his mother's warnings: Don't go past 21st Street; don't go to Astoria Park at night; don't go to Manhattan alone until you're at least 16. This was in the 90s, when the threat of violent crime still hovered over nearly every block. Today, the train to Queens is packed, door-to-door, with people at 2 AM on a Friday night. Years ago, that would have been unfathomable.
"People in LA work to enjoy life, and in New York, people are just so driven, that their life's enjoyment is work."
Stahl, a Queens lifer, says that the city has opened up since he was young. Astoria's 21st Street is bustling; Astoria Park is filled with strollers; and a Manhattan-bound subway is strange if it doesn't have teenagers on it. Yes, the rents have gone up, but Stahl—a freelance journalist, editor at Narratively, and friend of mine—will take Times Square with Mickey Mouse and Batman over Times Square with muggings and porn shops any day. Commercialization sucks, he argues, but being paranoid just walking down the street at night sucks even more.
I lived in LA for a year and a half, and if there's two American cities that are more polar opposite, I haven't been in them. They're just completely different. I feel like every city I've visited, there's a little LA in it, and certainly a bit of New York in it. I think people in LA work to enjoy life, and in New York, people are just so driven, that their life's enjoyment is work… In New York, it's more about proving it. Here, there just seems to be an ownership; that you have to earn it… I wish I could have that [LA] lifestyle, because maybe I'd be a little less anxious, and not need as much coffee. But in New York, it's different: I was born and raised here, and nowhere else is going to match that intensity. Maybe that means I die sooner. But I wouldn't want it any other way.
The Jack of All Trades
In 1970, Paul Bridgewater hitchhiked here from California. Not knowing anyone when he arrived, he spent his first night in New York sleeping at a homeless shelter in the East Village. When I met him 45 years later, he was still living in the East Village, just a few floors up from my girlfriend's apartment.
Paul is one of those people with a bottomless well of stories. When I spoke to him for this story, we started talking about his recent month-long trip to a friend's chateau in France, then wound up discussing trapezing transvestites at a club called the Peppermint Lounge, a conga line that he took from a cab to a club called Underground, and the gigantic spoon of cocaine on the wall in Studio 54. He also told me about his friend who dressed as a vampire and would crawl on the ground biting people's ankles at parties. He now owns that chateau in France.
A gallery owner, exhibit designer, former restaurant owner, and all-around savant, Bridgewater came here with $10 in his pocket and now has a wealth of anecdotes, featuring the most interesting people, places, and things in the world. According to him, that could only happen in New York.
It didn't matter if you had money. Just if you were fabulous, and beautiful, and interesting. I remember being at a party, and there were sailors in uniforms and someone came in and they were covered in jewels and a tiara; they had just come from the opera. And someone would say, "Oh, we're going to a party, do you want to come with us?" You would jump into a limousine and be gone. You'd start at a nice apartment but suddenly you'd be in a penthouse. You'd be sitting there, laughing and carrying on, and someone would turn to you and say, "Oh, I like you. We're going to a party. Do you wanna come with us?" And you just went. You never knew where you were gonna be.
In the handful of times I've spoken with Linda Sarsour, she has always found some way to sneak in her love for New York, or more specifically, Brooklyn.
When she replies to an email, her signature reads, "Sent from my Brooklyn iPhone." When I wrote to her for this story, she responded with, "I wish I had time; I would run a campaign and make Brooklyn its own city again, heck its own country if I could." A noted rights advocate and speaker, Sarsour was born and raised in the outer borough, after her parents emigrated from Palestine. When she discusses civil liberties for Muslim Americans in the city—an issue which, as the head of the Arab American Association of New York, she has become nationally recognized for—her Brooklyn accent and attitude is all too noticeable.
But, most importantly, her underlying argument is that the best city in the world shouldn't tolerate injustice.
New York City is the only city in the country where you can travel around the world at the cost of $2.75 each way. From Chinatown to Brooklyn's Little Arabia to Senegal in Harlem to Little Korea in Flushing to Liberia on Staten Island… New York City is the world within the world.
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