“Where are you from?”
It has to be the most common question asked and answered by travelers, certainly it’s an easy one — but it always gives me trouble. Because wherever I happen to be, people tend to doubt my entirely honest response.
It happened again, just two weeks ago in Melbourne. I was having a chat with a lovely woman I’d met along the way, and it had already been established that I live in New York City.
“And where did you grow up?” she asked. “New York City,” I said, adding “Manhattan”. She looked puzzled, tried again. “But where were you born?”
“I was born in New York,” I said. “In fact, at NYU Hospital.”
“Oh,” she said, frowning slightly. “You must be very unusual, then.”
I’m not sure where this idea came from, that everyone who lives in New York came here from somewhere else.
In fact, I’m not sure I can think of a place besides New York where people harbor such doubts about its likelihood as a growing-up spot, can you? And yet, I seem to remember growing up with plenty of children around me.
In 1974, I was one of 110,642 babies born in the city, a birth rate that more or less matched, and continues to match, the United States as a whole. There are still plenty of kids here – 7% of New Yorkers are under 5 years old, again, the same as the US as a whole. It is true that there are more New Yorkers that were born in other countries than in many other parts of the United States — 37% of New Yorkers are foreign born, compared with 13% of all US residents — but a 63% majority of New Yorkers were born in the United States. And half — that’s over four million people! — were, like me, born in New York. That’s actually a higher percentage than you’ll find in other cities, like Boston and San Francisco. If anything, New Yorkers are less likely to move, compared to the entire US population.
My guess is that the popular imagination of what it’s like to grow up in the city has been so highly dramatized that it basically seems unbelievable.
People either picture a childhood that consists of being driven around by chauffeurs to school and then ferried to the Hamptons house, or one that stars a street urchin’s scrabbling for survival.
While I did have friends who lived versions of both of these rather extreme lifestyles, I didn’t. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t different growing up in the largest city in the United States, and one that fancies itself the center of the entire universe, besides — of course it was, and New York shaped me, just as the place you grew up shaped you. But there are many children here — and for a while, I was one of them.