New York. A Portrait.
“Things have changed, man.” He flashed his phone, displaying a homeless man, facedown, naked on the sidewalk. “This was 10 feet from my hotel entrance in mid-town. It’s Gotham”.
Having lived in New York previously, followed by a stint in San Francisco with a 40 minute walk down market street each day, I was decidedly unmoved by his photograph. Major U.S. cities have always had their share of… “eccentrics” stemming from a high tolerance for both the less equal starting points and the poor choices which often blend into these unfortunate outcomes.
Spoiled by the city-state’s immaculate governance, clean streets, and near absence of crime, I suspected my Singaporean friend’s reference point was a tad… “out of touch”.
However, the reports of nightly subway attacks, COVID rioting, boarded up Walgreens, and mice-infestations were all troublesome regularities for the self-proclaimed “greatest city on earth”.
New York had always been one of my favorite cities. I was keen to see for myself.
After 24 hours in the air, I touch down to a cold, grey rain blanketing JFK. My ride, an early 2000s sedan smells decidedly of cigarettes. The driver looked of middle-eastern descent, likely a Queens native sporting a camouflaged Northface, muddied boots, and a thick beard. In sharp contrast to New York taxi-drivers, we have our ceremonial, administrative exchange before embarking on our otherwise silent 45 minute journey into the city:
Winter has arrived. Barren trees and two-story stand alone homes litter the edges of the four lane highway in Queens. An endless copy-paste of dilapidated painted ladies installments merge into graffiti-covered retail outlets with generic titles in fading font:
“The Hardware Store”.
“The Hubcap Place”
The retail bleeds into small plot residential which bleeds into the construction sites which perpetually frustrate JFK arrivals. It’s often overlooked, but these neighborhoods are the life blood of New York City. A pipeline of hardened regulars who commute into the city daily, filling out the bleachers at Citi Field and MetLife Stadium, and performing many of the manual and service level jobs which give life to the glitzy metropolis to the west.
New York feels uniquely blue-collar for a global city. An acceptance of wealth-inequality combined with a fierce egalitarian social streak. Zero deference to wealth and an often visible disdain for the aloof Manhattanites stemming from a distinct personal dignity cultivated in immigrant homes and the neighborhoods we are driving through now.
LaGuardia passes on the right.
The construction zone is finally receding and the landmark airport has received a much-needed face-lift. The new terminal is blanketed in musical advertisements - “The Lion King”, “Aladdin”, “Chicago”, “Hamilton” - a hint of the high-culture available ahead as the houses morph into block apartments which slowly gain altitude inching towards Manhattan.
December is not white, but grey. Rain and mist engulf the tallest peaks across the steel-framed bridge as the city comes into view. Birmingham industrial-era Britain meets Shanghai. Stuy Town meets billionaires row. The 20th century standing its ground against the relentless push of the 21st. While the new glass structures soak up outsized attention, New York remains overwhelmingly brick, concrete, and brownstone. The city has managed to thrive despite the massive changes in political, economic, and technological might over the last 100 years. The old structures are infused with an annual influx of young flesh which make new pockets old and old pockets new - keeping the retail, restaurants, nightlife and ideas fresh: a 21-year old inside a 60 year-olds body.
New York is often reduced to clichés: the Wall Street bull or Rockefeller Plaza at Christmas or the towering, oligarch-filled condo’s overlooking central park south, but the industrial warehouses, railroads, and smoke stacks erupting from the Bronx, breathing life into the 8.5 million residents of the five boroughs are underrated: Industrial chimneys and brutalist, brick soviet-style public housing which dot the city’s exterior, standing guard over the interior’s $100 per sq/ft rents in layers of thirty story, x-shaped anchors as if teleported in at the direction of a 1950s urban-planning bureaucrat in Moscow.
I like it.
It’s weirdly more human. More range. More grit. Coming from Asia, these neighborhoods are a reminder not everything has to be floor-to-ceiling glass and luxury retail.
Perhaps that is New York’s greatest differentiator. The sheer range and fairly normal distribution which puts it in a class of its own. Stockholm has the distribution but lacks the variance, the peaks and valleys. Manila has the variance, but lacks the distribution. New York has a certain thickness. Spikey variance at the top and bottom? Of course. But also everything in between. The 1930s crumbling façade of a sandwich shop next to One Vanderbilt next to Grand Central. The hotdog stand wagoned in from Queens servicing the Google engineer and the construction worker. Wallstreet meets homeless meets Mainstreet. WASP meets Texan meets immigrant. Glass meets brick meets mural. White meets blue collar meets blue man group. The concurrent blend of class, race, verticals, and ideals is much thicker than most global cities – providing a density of texture with which is hard to compete.
The wall street titans and the subway homeless may be ~100 floors apart, but they live on the same street. The more interesting cohorts are the 99 floors in between. A colorful honeycomb of ethnicities, ages, ideologies, and careers - all piling into the same, rickety 100-year-old 6 line on their way to mid-town east.
From the college grad bussing tables, to the immigrant taxi driver, to the young professional, the depressing grey sky matches the neutral color tones of the soulless automatons speed-walking by with their uniform “eat-shit-and-die” glares, seemingly incapable of direct eye-contact. Despite the harsh, aloof exterior of the Manhattanites, a tangible energy remains. Everyone brushing past, on their way to an overworked job which likely cost them their first marriage, has a plan tonight. A date. A deal. A meal. An audition. Few people come to New York to pay ungodly rents for hole-in-the-wall sixth story walkups to order-in on Friday night making progress on their laundry pile during infomercials.
While often misplaced, this refusal to settle is weirdly inspirational.
Unlike the capitals in Europe or Australia, New York doesn’t cut down its tall poppies. It attracts them, cultivates them and celebrates them. Across finance, entertainment, media, and tech - the Darwinian jungle forges world class talent. Sure, most people won’t make it. They will get crushed against the rocks of reality where poor timing meets a lack of talent.
But most people don’t know that yet.
Especially the young, the lifeblood of the city. They are crowded into a small French bar in West Village - hanging onto thirty for dear life. The musician rubbing shoulders with the banker next to the au pair who is laughing at the ad agency rep who desperately wants to switch lives with the musician - all struggling to communicate above the deafening, eclectic mix of 90s punk fading into a new EDM genre for which I am too old.
This bar will be gone tomorrow, like many of the inhabitants, the fickle trends of Gotham’s social life reducing it to ashes. However, two more will rise: new names, faces, languages, and laughs on display through the pane as next year’s crop floods in. The siren song of the city’s energy a self-fulfilling prophecy in seducing new recruits.
The uber drops me at my friend’s apartment, the “The Empire State” license plate starring at me as it disappears into the grey December mist. For some reason, its hard to shake my excitement for the weekend ahead.
To Shanghai’s chagrin, the king may have lost a step, but he is still king.
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