Being a freelance writer has its upsides and its down; but an indisputable up is the ability to choose one’s office daily. As I write, I am sitting in a small café on Hudson and Charles, spotted on a whim as I crossed over the street from Seventh Avenue. It boasts walls of exposed old brick and studiedly shabby wooden furniture; a vinyl record of jazz turns on a gramophone in the corner. October sunlight slants lazily across the street and slinks in through the café windows, gilding a wall of analogue photographs depicting the proprietor’s great-grandparents in curling sepia. It is late 2012; the New York headquarters of some of the twenty-first-century’s most cutting-edge technology companies are in the vicinity; but with this chipped mug of coffee in my hands here and that Charlie Parker LP spinning there, I could be occupying the sort of contemplative corner spot that any number of human characters in New York may have occupied before me. Other years, other faces, other times.
People sometimes complain that Greenwich Village, like much in Manhattan, has “altered beyond recognition” and I’m sure in many ways it has – it is in the very nature of this town; the very name of this town, to enshrine the possibility of change. But I also know, I feel intuitively, that there is still in these streets the unwavering spirit of the old city, catering generously and eternally to the needs of those whose hearts are open, curious and yearning. There’s no place like this on earth.
In other words, New York’s still got it.
When I turned eighteen, I was given a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday. A decade later, almost to the day, I moved to Manhattan and for the first few months I lived here, the simplest and most wondrous of the inestimable gifts this city bestows seemed to be this: that I could open those storied pages, flip to Goings On About Town, and, if I so desired, “go on about town”. I could read about a jazz gig, a book reading, a film opening, a symphony or rock concert, an opera, a play, a new restaurant and, bank balance permitting, experience it that same night. Back in my hometown of London – itself a city not without wonder – reading the Goings On section of the New Yorker became a weekly act of masochism, yielding predictable twists of almost palpable longing. To read about what was happening that same night across the Atlantic; to dream, to imagine, but to only be able to imagine – to not be in New York was sometimes too much to bear.
Yet this is a city that has always been created by the imagination; a metropolis lovingly constructed in ink and paper and celluloid and dreams as much as it is by bricks and mortar, steel and glass. To borrow an insight from that master observer of New York, E. B. White, there are roughly three New Yorks: that of the natives, that of the commuters, and that of the settlers. That notion was true when White wrote “Here is New York” in 1948, and it strikes me as being resoundingly true today. Like him, I believe that the third New York will always be the most important, the most vital, because it is the one whose foundations are laid first in the minds of human beings born and living elsewhere – those for whom New York City is the ultimate destination. When the settler-dreamers hit the bedrock, having crossed bodies of water, been coughed up through tubes or tunnels or deposited by planes, it is up to them – to us – to turn those dreams into something resembling reality. And because New York has a unique capacity to absorb whatever is thrown at it and whomever arrives on its shores, they invariably do play their own unique part in shaping what happens next in the mighty pageant that is life here.
Although, not always: New York also spits out more dejected and disappointed souls than any other city on earth. We transplanted “New Yorkers” must also live with the lurking shadow of that possibility every day.
The music fades, the needle lifts, and a bearded barista with complicated tattoos on his forearms whom I’d wager lives in Brooklyn goes to flip the record to its B-Side. Which reminds me of a startling fact: the first jazz disc ever to be cut in the world was cut in New York. Ever in the world! It was Nick La Rocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band with “Livery Stable Blues”, in early 1917. But I plucked that particular “first” from the sky; really it’s not so startling – New York is a city of firsts. A city of human beings calmly doing things that will forever alter the direction of how those things can be done. From sculptors to subway contractors; from traders of sundries to traders of derivatives; from writers of music to writers of insurance to writers of code. Right now, I wonder, how many blocks am I from wonder? A short stroll in any direction and I might run into a movie crew shooting on a corner of Bleecker whose young director, as yet unknown, will win an Oscar next year; I might walk past an innocuous office building on Houston in which employees at a start-up whose name we’ve never heard of are busy inventing the next game-changing technology that we will soon all take for granted; I may glance at construction workers on a downtown skyscraper site whose silhouette will one day be a byword, a metaphor, a symbol for something the whole world understands – or maybe will just be a building so beautiful it makes people weep. This guy sitting next to me, meanwhile, tapping away on his laptop; for all I know he could be writing the world’s next Booker-winning novel. This is New York.
Since arriving at this café, moreover, I have seen through these sunlit windows every sort of human face pass along Hudson Street. Even here, in this achingly well-heeled neighborhood where a brownstone townhouse around the corner on Perry is apparently on the market at fifteen million dollars (“What the hell – I’ll take two!”) I have seen faces old and young; faces black and brown and pink and white and many shades of grey. Faces beautiful and completely unmemorable; faces brimful of life; faces seemingly close to death. Perhaps these faces come from Puerto Rico, from Sierra Leone, from Mexico, England, Haiti, Cuba, Latvia, Kenya, Russia, Ireland or Italy. Perhaps from China, Tunisia, Wales, India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Greece or Poland. Perhaps they were born in a gleaming hospital uptown, or in a railroad apartment in an outer borough; perhaps they were born half way around the world. But here in New York they are. And as White memorably observed: “the collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”
The phenomenon of one world. We know all this, of course. New York as a racial melting pot, a magnet for all comers, a global crucible of creativity: all of this has been said in myriad ways, by multitudes and over many years. But just as New York has every type of potential racial problem and for the most part enjoys a continuing and frankly miraculous city-wide tolerance, an “inviolate truce” between peoples, what astounds me is how the things we know about the city – the clichés and stereotypes, the myths and legends – go on being true, and indeed, get truer. Why? How? How do you work, New York? How are you even plausible?
When you tell people you live in New York, I have found, reactions generally divide into those whose eyes widen with envy and those who wrinkle their brows in horror – or, worse, pity. “Oh no,” they shake their head, “I could never live there – so noisy, so dirty, so smelly. And why does everyone have to be so unbelievably rude?” There are also those who grumble that New York has somehow lost its character; been homogenised and commercialised and overrun by identical shops, adverts and tourists who genuinely appear to think queuing outside Abercrombie & Fitch a valid use of time. Well, yes. Surely Broadway has its grim bits; clearly one does well to avoid Times Square. Obviously you ignore the horse-and-cart guys in Central Park and of course you don’t eat at Olive Garden or wait forty-five minutes for a Magnolia Bakery cupcake. And of course New York is smelly and dirty and busy and crowded. If White thought in 1948 that “the normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified” he would possibly be dismayed (but not surprised) to discover that more than half a century on there is still “not enough air and not enough light, and there is usually either too much heat or too little”.
But in general, I believe, New York still has more life and curiosity and character in a single city block than even – dare I say it – London. And I’m a born and bred London girl who once suspected that if you were to cut my veins I would bleed the Thames. (I have also lived in Paris, and - hit me over the head with a baguette – I’m afraid that glorious capital does not compare either.) For more than three years, for example, my local Subway stop has been Grand Central. Rushing across the Main Concourse before I head underground to catch a train, I try always to look up at the ceiling and promise myself I will never, ever take such a sight for granted. When back in London, equally, I remind myself not to sigh in inevitable disappointment when I board the Piccadilly Line to go home. It’s a grossly unfair comparison, of course: how could poor old Hammersmith, my local Tube, ever hope to win against those majestic cathedral glories on 42nd Street?
But that’s the point, isn’t it?
In January 2012, the population of the entire New York City metropolitan area hit nineteen million people. It can be lonely here; sometimes unutterably so: a teeming place of human isolation and even desperation. By Grand Central Station I have indeed sat down and wept. But as White also captured brilliantly: “Although New York often imparts a feeling of great forlornness or forsakenness… you always feel that either by shifting your location ten blocks or by reducing your fortune by five dollars you can experience rejuvenation.”
Reducing one’s fortune by five dollars here, by the way, remains the easiest damn thing in the world. Another cup of coffee at this very café, especially if accompanied by one of those artisanal sea-salt cookies they bake downstairs, will barely leave me change from twice that. In a doorway down the street, some wit has stuck a poster referencing the iconic slogan: I CAN’T AFFORD TO NY. It has probably never been more difficult or more expensive to live in New York. Yet I and so many others would not be anywhere else in the world. Shifting my location, I will take my five bucks and get another coffee at some other place, ten blocks away, twenty, or who knows where. It doesn’t matter where I go: I open the door and the universe awaits.
CLEMENCY BURTON-HIL, NEW YORK CITY, OCTOBER 2012