New York City
August 10, 2015
My morning commute began when I exited of my girlfriend’s house on Jerome Avenue in crumbling East New York to the screams of my neighbor. Across the street, a man, larger than me, had a woman, smaller than him, by the hair. He was dragging her around the small enclosure in front of their house. I, along with maybe six other people on the street, cautiously moved towards him and, without much success, requested that he let her go. Perhaps a minute later, a much larger man came barreling down the block and bellowed, “Let her go, that’s fucked up!”
The hair-grabbing assailant unclenched his victim’s hair and retreated into the house. The woman said nothing to us or the man who had scared off her attacker. She walked away, up the street, in the opposite direction. I walked to the J train, traveled 45 minutes on elevated tracks, then under the East River, to a building with a doorman, a concierge, an elevator man and penthouse apartments on every floor, to start my workday as a bookkeeper for Marla, the owner of an invitation-only photography gallery. She rarely left her bed, entertained obscenely wealthy high-end clients, and spent more on dog food than I did on rent. Today, she was in her pajamas when I arrived.
The defining parts of my life that were part of that day: the job, the apartment, the girlfriend, were all gone within a few months. But as I prepare to leave New York, in a more than temporary way, for the first time in 20 years, it is this day that I think best encapsulates my time here. There were more memorable, joyful, consequential and tragic days in New York. I met my wife here, after all, as well as, many of my most cherished friends. I lived through a blackout, two hurricane-based evacuations, a transit strike, the smallest earthquake, the only tornado ever to hit Brooklyn, September 11 and all that followed, but when I think of the city, what it meant to me, and what impact it will leave on me, I think of that 45 minute train ride.
What separates New York from the places I’ve been acquainted for any length of time (which is admittedly very few) is the ability, within a very short distance to experience these dichotomies of powerful and powerlessness, struggle and leisure, poverty of economy and poverty of spirit. These oppositions exist elsewhere–nearly everywhere–but it is here where I find them in closest proximity. For whatever reason, my experiences in New York have put me in contact with the poles of our society, from drunken revelries in an all-mirrored apartment in Trump Towers as a college student to the scarred hallways of Albany Houses in Crown Heights trailing a city council candidate as a reporter, from meeting Susan Sarandon when I interned for Annie Leibovitz to representing a Vietnam Vet dying of AIDS as a paralegal. I had the privilege to move between worlds that are pressed up against each other, but rarely interact and collide even less.
As I moved, the place became familiar. The expanse of the city never lost its ability to surprise, amaze, confound and frustrate, but I learned it. It enabled me to make a cultural space of my own, expressing pieces of my mind and observations first as a photographer, then as a filmmaker and finally as a public artist. The city made it difficult, demanding permits, patience and even the occasional police chase to become part of the artistic experiment. But, with the work of the more talented and inspired folks around me, handball courts became movie theaters, basements became rabbit holes, and for months at a time I lived inside a set.
The hallmark of New York is not hostility, but the city’s desire for you to figure it out on your own. In Seoul, the epicenter of homogenous Korea, the navigational signs are commonly in four languages; in New York, a city where one might hear any of 200 distinct languages on the street, you’re lucky to find an official sign, at all, let alone one in anything other than English. It’s not that New York doesn’t like you; it’s that it expects a certain resilience, ambition and effort.
Much of this can come across as arrogance or indifference, but is more firmly rooted in competition and preservation. The theory of the self-important partner of the civil rights firm in the shadow of World Trade Center, where I worked from 2000 to 2004 was that New York was founded for commercial reasons rather than religious ones, and thus its laws and people are governed by rational survival rather than an emotion like the anger of Boston or the depression of Philadelphia.
This is visible throughout the city, but most acutely and commonly experienced during the rush for seats on the train. Part of aggression is about getting to sit down and rest, but most of it is beating the seven thousand or so other folks after the same seat, and for some, earning the public satisfaction of offering it up to the person who really needs it. There will always be those who have been here less than a year with the visions of Sex and the City, or worse, Girls, fresh in their memories. They will be the ones who get noticeably upset about being stepped on, cut off, or otherwise taken advantage of, having not yet learned to suck their teeth, shake their heads, and move on.
What is created in New York, is nearly always destroyed. The rabbit hole basement is now banal offices, the projected warehouse walls made way a parking lot, the movie set apartment is a condo. The city is historically migratory and transitory, but during my time, New York, like so many other urban centers, has been ravaged by the virus of inequality and gentrification. Homogenization has replaced culture; artists have become “creatives”; unexceptional exceptional people have pushed out people with no less ability or desire, just fewer dollars. Rudolph Guiliani and Michael Bloomberg succeeded in making this a very difficult place for anyone but the very rich to live: a city where FAO Schwartz can’t even afford the rent and the public housing authority is selling its buildings off to private developers. I say this knowing, that the distinguishing mark of New Yorkers is a mourning for a time just before their arrival.
New York’s aggressive and competitive spirit drives every local industry and neighborly interaction, compels the prettiest, most ambitious and most aspirational from Iowa to Indonesia to try their luck in a city filled with dreamers and ladder climbers, and demands that everyone find a hustle, will not be what I miss about the place. In fact I’m not sure I’ll miss the place at all. I already miss most of the people, because, here it seems, people float in and away, leaving an impression (often a bruise), but then move on.
In truth, what I will miss is that this is home. This is the place I know best how to be. It may be that Iowa becomes that place, or more likely that home, as a good friend recently predicted, will become wherever Linda and I are together. But for now, and at least for some while to come, I’m a New Yorker.