Why Writers Love New York City
LaVonne Roberts discusses what inspired her love of New York City.
There is a phenomenon many of us seem to get swept up in: feeling that our relationship to the city is as alive and intimate as that of fiery, fateful lovers. What is it about New York that compels us to believe the city is a human entity unto itself: one capable of offering earth-shattering sex, endlessly stimulating conversation, and eventual transcendence, too?
Falling in love with New York City is like your first love affair. It sets the bar for expectations for the rest of your life. And even when love doesn’t work out, the city is still there. NYC feels like an engine powering the world, and I feel like a gear in the engine. Living anywhere else makes me feel like a passenger. I’m surrounded by some of the most successful, and driven people in the world. Most people sacrificed a lot to get here and they make the concerted choice to stay every day. You can feel the collective ambitions of people living in the city. Everyone moves to NYC with a dream or driven by ambition, so there’s a buzz of energy at all times and that’s what becomes its unique energy. Manhattanites tend to have a love-hate relationship with the city until an outsider makes a negative comment. Then there’s a ferocious loyalty to a city where you can find everything you need in a one-mile radius, even if the cost of living there often feels beyond your means.
When you’re away from New York, what are the details — whether they’re a place, a smell, a season, a particular kind of night sky — that transport you to a place of nostalgia?
New York is about seasons on a grand scale — walking down Park Ave. on that first April day when the tulips open. Spring smells like flowers, pollen, fresh air and sunlight that warms up every patch of green in Central Park when picnics on blankets canvas the slopes. It’s that frenzy before a snowstorm and the quiet morning after when the streets are almost silent, save the plows coming through when it feels like the whole city slept in. It’s about knowing that Thanksgiving Day at about two, after the parade when most people are eating or away from the city, is the quietest day in Manhattan when you can walk past every famous department store’s Christmas windows (most installed the night before) and take it in alone. Winter smells clean, sterile; like cold, except for the smell of steam rising from subways and food carts assaulting your sense of smell and highjacking your hunger. There’s an inexplicable beauty in the crowded, sparsely landscaped streets, where luxury boutiques commingle with dollar pizza slice spots that lure you in after a night out imbibing.
What is it about New York that compels millions of people to risk everything in order to try and make it in the city?
Dorothy Parker wrote, “London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful.” When I tell people I live in New York, that means one thing: Manhattan. Where else is a state’s name synonymous with its largest city. Most people have no idea that Albany is the capital let alone that the Big Apple sits below hundreds of apple orchards. Every May, I’d be sitting outside my children’s school, from elementary through middle school, in our SUV, loaded for the summer en route to Shelter Island and Manhattan. We did a reverse commute. During the week, we’d enjoy the beach and every Thursday when oversold trains unloaded weekend Hamptonites, we’d board the train for the city where we would meander around the MET almost alone and never encounter a line for a film or pop-up food cart.
How is it that — despite the projected hopes and adolescent ideals of millions of intelligent human beings — this city still manages, both in love and in tragedy, to exceed our wildest dreams?
New York city isn’t just a destination. It’s an idea — a projection of our dreams, like Paris or Istanbul. I used to take coffee at the top of the Mandarin Oriental in the lobby bar. It was the best $10 pick me up because as I looked out across Central Park I could see the CNN digital billboard. I’d joking tell anyone with me that if anything significant ever happened, I’d be one of the first to know about it with my birds-eye view of the CNN LED screen lit up. Anything is possible when you look out across the city and remember where you came from. Knowing the 8 million life stories criss-cross is inspiration for reinvention in a city where there’s seemingly a place for everyone. And it’s a place where street smarts are learned and rewarded in every facet of your day-to-day from dealing with a doorman to furthering a merger. Maybe it’s just a reminder that possibility exists in a place where imagination begets reality. All you have to do is look up to buildings that defy history. Living here is tough and taxing. You get beaten into the pavement far more than you get to soar above the buildings. But, those occasional, brief moments above the city make it all worthwhile.
New York is about going to see shows when then in previews surrounded by locals and having places. Biking down Riverside past rows of brownstones and parks full of kids playing baseball, and then southward along the Hudson river, there are spots where you glimpse blocks of tenements that suddenly collide into a concrete jungle of steel and glass, where the Financial District’s morning buzz signals the city is awake. I love the collision of neighborhoods.
When I’m on the subway, enmeshed in observing moments of idiosyncratic beauty, I play a game with myself. I look for someone to describe, and then I’ll write a character study. When I dictate I often chuckle because I’ve become one of those people speaking to themselves.
It’s a microcosm of the world full of ethnic enclaves. From Brooklyn’s Little Odessa to Queens’ Little Guyana to Koreatown and Chinatown, there’s always something new emerging, like the 10 shops around Mulberry Street in downtown Manhattan make up the area many Aussies call “Little Australia.” Manhattan is a capitalist paradox. On the one hand, there seems to be a Duane Reed, Starbucks or a Wells Fargo one every block, and on the other hand, the nation’s epicenter of commerce has become so expensive that windows are plastered with for-lease signs. In a city where over 100 hundred languages are spoken, it’s loud. Noise is everywhere.
NYC is the safest large city in America and one of the safest urban cities in the world. I walk around Manhattan, from Harlem to the Financial District, anytime night or day, and have never felt unsafe. Water. Rivers, beaches, long strolls along the seaport. Seagulls. NYC is surrounded by water, and my backyard is Central Park. I’ve lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Milan, Lake Como, London, Hong Kong, and in Spain and France, but there’s nowhere in the world with as much to see and write about than New York City.
Last weekend my daughter dropped her phone through the subway grate. You could see her millennial pink iPhone resting on the concrete ledge below and hear the water from melting snow trickling past it into the depths of murk, yet there was no way we could reach it. The manager of Duane Reade offered us a “Grip and Grab,” a multi-Purpose reach tool with a rubber grip hand. Strangers gathered around cheering us on, and one young man wanted to put his hand in until it came back up covered in slime. My knocking on the door of the local fire department resulted in the entire fire crew arriving in a truck that took up a substantial part of the block. “We can’t make any promises,” said one fireman. Another Shrek-sized fireman shook his head like he was dealing with amateurs before he laid down on a sopping wet street in his rubber overalls and effortlessly reached through the six-inch opening and under the grate to fish out the phone effortlessly as the crew of ten watched. The crowd cheered.
When I think of New York City, I see Woody Allen’s version of juxtaposition and its temporal and aesthetic tension between modernity and history. Although his lens is full of anxiety and worry, he remains optimistic for the future of New York, as I do because its backdrop of heartache and failure illuminates moments of triumph and survival in a city known for its lights. And every time I inhabit another part of the world, I find myself returning to look for that light.