A love letter to New York City
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Sept. 11, 2020.
For years, I tried to explain to a person I love why I’m infatuated with New York City.
New York City is not necessarily an easy place to love. It can be overwhelming and exhausting, even to those of us who have — without coercion — decided to call this storied city home.
The impassable sidewalks in Midtown, the sky-high cocktail prices, the endless assault on your senses — this city can be, well, a lot. It’s a city as famous for its grisly traffic and incessant battery of light and sound as it is for the boiled bagels, suspension bridges and skyscrapers.
Still, people from all over the globe are drawn to this city, which stars in croony Sinatra ballads and too many blockbusters to count. Many travelers who come here pack their days with theater shows and upscale dinners; cruise around the Hudson River for pictures of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty; bed down in astronomically expensive hotels and close their blackout shades to keep out the neon glow.
Loving New York City is no simple task. Coming here is rarely without sacrifice, whether you’re staying for one day or the rest of your life. It’s an act of passion: saving up your points and miles, squirreling away cash, waiting in line for hours (sometimes days) for half-price theater tickets, a chance to see “Saturday Night Live” in person, a trendy pastry from a Soho bakery.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City hard. Really hard. But just like the 1970s financial crisis, the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the devastating attack on Sept. 11, 2001, I know New York City will only emerge stronger.
After all, nothing and nowhere can push you toward greatness quite like New York City, and we all know the best things in life take a lot of work. If something comes easy, how are you supposed to remember how badly you wanted it in the first place?
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It’s love at first sight
My love story with New York began on a busy block in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where you can buy sugar cane juice on the corner in the sticky heat of summer and the elm trees along Eastern Parkway turn brassy yellow in autumn.
I moved there just after graduating from college, though I railed against the idea of leaving Boston, a tidy little city with quiet nights and charming brownstones. But I wanted to be a journalist and, though I didn’t know it then, wanted to tumble into bed after a day in the city utterly exhausted, completely spent and filled with pride that I’d survived another day.
I didn’t fall in love with New York City all at once, like Holly Golightly. Instead, I realized I was in love over time, when my heart began to stutter and stop at the sight of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the G train finally — finally! — pulling into the station. After even a short time away, I began to long for the unmistakable silhouette of the city.
I fell in love with New York City because:
1. You can find the job you’ve always dreamt of here, and you can chase it all the way to the top of that gleaming corner office overlooking Central Park. Or, you can pursue your passions at some of the most incredible institutions on Earth: Columbia, New York University, the Fashion Institute of Technology. Most people come here trying to prove something, make something, discover something. Everyone, I think, is chasing something.
2. It’s a city of superlatives in many ways, including the staggering number of nicknames such as Gotham, the City That Never Sleeps, Empire City, the City so Nice They Named it Twice, the Capital of the World and the Big Apple.
3. You will never get bored here. If you’re bored, you’re not trying hard enough. You can split your sides at live comedy shows all over the city (my personal favorite: the Village Underground), discover art and history and oddities (there are museums dedicated to household antiques, ice cream, mathematics, human anatomy, sex and more), splurge on Broadway shows and off-Broadway shows and off-off-Broadway shows, check out a book from the library, take in the view, even visit the surrounding islands.
4. The subway never stops.
5. Where else can you experience the best Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian, Italian, French, Polish, Vietnamese, Greek, Colombian, Nepalese, Indian, Moroccan, Israeli (you get the idea) cuisine without venturing to the country of origin? Nowhere, that’s where.
6. It may be one of the most expensive cities on the planet, but you can always find a $1 slice of pizza for dinner. Or breakfast. We don’t judge (see No. 8).
7. Still, there are so many free things to do in New York City (self-guided gallery crawls in Chelsea; picnics in Prospect Park) you don’t need to take out a second mortgage on your studio apartment to have a good time.
8. Everyone is fiercely friendly and compassionate — even though they’re always in a hurry.
9. It’s the most resilient place I’ve ever had the honor to live. I still find it hard not to tear up when I walk past the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum or gaze up at the World Trade Center. Not everyone stays here, so those who do are the people who you can count on even during an unimaginable crisis.
10. It’s also the most beautifully diverse place I’ve ever been to. Despite our differences (Yankees versus Mets, JFK versus LGA, Prince Street Pizza versus Made in New York) New Yorkers are unflinchingly protective of our home, and each other. We commiserate in overcrowded subway cars at rush hour. We complain loudly about the stink of the sewers in summer and Uber surge pricing. We share trade secrets about the best new restaurants in Queens and upcoming sample sales. We even whisper conspiratorially about the bed bugs.
11. It’s the capital of the world and the center of the universe. Period.
New York City has been my home for more than seven years, though I only had a New York zip code for two. After, I moved across the Hudson and commuted to Manhattan every Monday through Friday before the pandemic, sometimes taking the ferry to watch the iconic skyline snap into stark relief against the hazy sky.
The Big Apple of my eye
When I returned to New York City for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, it had been almost four months since I left the office (along with cups half-filled with almond milk and espresso on my desk). None of us had expected to be gone longer than a few weeks.
But the city had shut down, its energy undetectable, its arteries and capillaries — the crisscrossing streets and avenues, subterranean subway tunnels — drained of life.
I was trying to rediscover my love for New York City just as the city was reawakening.
I remembered how, when I first moved here, I used to walk up and down Brooklyn and Manhattan for hours, going nowhere in particular. I would meander in and out of shops, stop to read by the water, take pictures even though I felt a bit silly, worried I might be mistaken for a tourist when I so badly wanted to become a real New Yorker.
I remembered my first nights in New York with the same clarity as you remember the first time you meet a person you love.
The drinks: pickleback shots at the now-shuttered Do or Dine dive; a literary-themed goblet of rum punch at the Library Hotel on Madison Avenue; pitchers of draft margarita during happy hour at Chavela’s.
The meals: an unforgettable shakshuka from Miriam with pita bread as good as any I found in Tel Aviv; pickled tomatoes and rye bread from Katz’s Deli; zucchini blossoms from the farmer’s market in a Bed-Stuy backyard.
The entertainment: jam bands in Long Island City; parties on rooftops in Williamsburg and Soho.
I remember ascending to the top of the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, the observation deck in Hudson Yards, seeking greater heights every year. I’ve been there in the morning, after nightfall, at sunset, during all the seasons. No matter how well you know this city, you will never see the exact same view twice.
There can be a lot of heartbreak when you fall in love with a city like New York. You return after a long weekend to find your favorite coffee shop shuttered, its signage plastered over with advertisements for some forthcoming salad bar or high-fashion boutique.
But that’s what makes New York City unexpected, cinematic. With every loss comes something new and exciting. You can never know this city, even when it becomes so familiar, you don’t need an app to decide which train to take.
We take this neverending change in stride because we’ve come to crave the continuous thrill of the unknown: an unmistakable joy, a deep satisfaction, born of the uncertainty of New York City.
P.S. I will always love you
New York City isn’t neat and tidy. Even the streets and avenues, which people assure you form an easy-to-follow grid, end in a knotted tangle in downtown Manhattan, where the city’s cobblestone foundation and haphazard formation defy right angles.
Falling in love with New York City is not unlike starting a new relationship. You quickly learn to look past the challenges — the ceaseless whine of sirens, the rattle of an ancient radiator in winter, the rumble of trains hurtling beneath the streets — and all you see are sunsets reflected in skyscraper glass, the endless possibilities for adventure.
And once you fall in love with New York City, I’m not sure you can stop. It’s a city that leaves its mark: a bag filled with expired subway tickets, stubs from improv shows, wrinkled playbills, receipts from Duane Reade.
When you come to New York for the first time, you may not know exactly what to expect. But if you keep an open heart, you will see the city I love, the city I fall in love with every morning, when the train rolls to a stop beneath Sixth Avenue, running the length of this city where everyone belongs, and belongs to each other. Where you can dream of having everything you’ve ever wanted, because you’re already here, where it’s possible to earn it if you give it your all.
Featured illustration by The Points Guy.
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