It’s been difficult, living as I do in barely upstate New York, to delve into a city mindset — New York or any other city. Spring is coming on: a Chinook-like scent is in the air, melting snow; friendly goats are eating my vegetable garden’s weeds; later afternoon sun picks out the hairs of poison ivy vines and makes them look almost attractive; the birch in front of my window is peeling, showing nervous white bark like a teenager shivering to get a pre-summer tan. A shock of yellow forsythia, forced into bloom in the kitchen, dazzles against the drab landscape, hinting that its parent plant outside will not be far behind. In the spring, cities, with their noise and narrow viewscapes and lack of wholesome dirt, seem like cardboard cutouts, acting out dramas in a children’s theater of life.
And since I have an infant son, strolling the streets of New York City in the freezing rains and high winds of February hasn’t been on the top of my to-do list. So I’ve been polling local friends and neighbors, most of whom are either from the New York area, or moved here from the Midwest and fell in love with it. It’s an unscientific, individualistic survey with a simple question: What is it about New York?
The question has led us all in circles, reminding me of what it is that charms me about New Yorkers: the navel-gazing, exasperating as it sometimes is, is so very innocent. It’s like a little boy who’s discovered he has a penis and can make it do things like bounce and pee in patterns — you can hardly berate him for his fascination. Likewise with New York. My question is met with wide-eyed bafflement. There is no answer given that doesn’t already assume the city’s pre-eminence in world culture. Which isn’t really good enough. As a trained mathematician, I have to question statements of fact based on a hypothesis that has never been proven, possibly never even tested.
“It’s got this incredible metaphysical energy,” said one person. “Even before a city was there, there was something special about the island of Manhatten.” Hm.
“New York is always new,” said another. “It’s constantly reinventing itself.” Which leads me to ask — doesn’t that just mean it’s always the same? If a city’s only definition is neverending metamorphosis, how can it ever truly change?
The best explanation of New York’s attractions so far has come from my Russian uncle. He and his wife visited us over two years ago. It was their first time ever in America (although they’d traveled all over Europe in the last decade, America is still tetchy about giving tourist visas to Russians; my single aunt and single female cousin were denied visas). They were up by 5 or 6 every morning, eager to get back on the train to the city. Our country life interested them little, the goats not at all. New York was everything. They wore me out. We spent all day tramping around the city, didn’t get home until at least 8 at night, when we cooked dinner and chattered in three languages about what they’d seen and how much they loved it. That went on for almost three weeks.
Near the end, we were walking through a quiet and attractive part of Greenwich Village, near one of those parks that has fenced-in areas for dogs to run leash-free (one for little dogs, one for big dogs, very p.c.). My Russian was smoother by then, and I asked my uncle why they had fallen in love with New York so quickly and completely.
“In those other cities,” he said, referring to the major and sub-major European metropolises they’d visited, “you can see one little part and you’ve seen the whole city. You visit one section of London and you get the idea of London. The rest of the city feels the same. In New York it’s different. Here,” he waved his hand toward the former warehouse buildings in Soho that now housed boutique clothing shops, “you have to see every little part of it. Every neighborhood of New York is completely different.” To this day they still daydream about New York City. Just last week my cousin emailed from St. Petersburg to tell me that her mother couldn’t tear herself away from a documentary about O. Henry, just because there was so much about New York in it.
Since I can’t claim expert knowledge of the neighborhoods of London or Paris, Tokyo or Buenos Aires, I don’t know if my uncle was right about other cities. But he was the first person to get me to look at New York City differently. Maybe that’s part of what makes the city special: maybe it needs recurring waves of outsiders to define it, even to itself, and so welcomes all and sundry with open arms.