“Oh, you live in Queens? So not in the city city, not really.”
This is something I get a lot when I tell people I’m from New York City. Not from New Yorkers mind you, but from a selection of people who have vacationed to midtown and now feel like they know the essence of the “Empire State.” It’s something I’ve struggled with for my teenage years. Do I really live in New York? Are the other boroughs really just overrated suburbs? What does it mean to live in the city? Do I make the cut?
As I’ve grown up, I’ve experienced a few different versions of city lives. I went to elementary school in my own neighborhood, where we might go to Central Park or Broadway on a day off, but most of life is lived locally. I mean there’s no reason not to- in easy reach we have our grocery store, the library, the butcher, and the post office. My school is just a few blocks away and kids are able to start walking there by themselves at a fairly young age. We play outside on our block with kids who live right nextdoor. These are the local neighborhood years.
Then, I went to middle school in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Central Park became less a monthly retreat and more an extension of the classroom- we read books there, walked through it to get to field trips at Lincoln Center, it was part of the everyday life. I took the subway on the daily, learned how to navigate the map and began to understand the different neighbourhoods.
My high school years were spent in Brooklyn. Here’s really where my horizons expand- students flocked from all five boroughs to my school and so the beginnings of learning of the subway map were solidified across the entire city. Until then, Brooklyn was just the place my ancestors were from. Now it was real, I saw the hipsters arise in the spring with their matching poodles toddling next to them. I spent a lot more time in Manhattan- it was easier to get home if my friends were from the Bronx and I from Queens. We studied at the 42nd street library, got to know the bubble tea places of the East Village. I learned I was supposed to resent NYU for ruining the village, call Staten Island a suburb, be wary of Park Slope moms, roll my eyes at the millennial middle Americans moving in for their start up.
I think when most outsiders think of city living they think of my middle school years. I call this the Gossip Girl picture of city life. Sitting on the stairs of the MET, going to Serendipity for an after school ice cream snack, walking by people urgently hailing yellow cabs. And that’s not an invalid view of city life, certainly people live that way- some of my friends from middle school have only lived that way.
But it’s certainly a restricted view of city living- I would even go far as to say a classist view of city life. The world I described in my high school years is a better picture of how many New Yorkers live. Manhattan as a central square, a good meeting spot, but only really the beginnings of understanding the city. Living with a commute meant we had to explore more of the city. It wasn’t at our doorstep so we ventured out boldly. But still, I think most people would agree with that picture of life as verified, city living.
What about that first picture? Here lies the radical claim- that Queens way of life, the local neighborhood borough life- that’s the purest form of city living.
You see, our modern and popular conception of city life is urbanist theory- - great public transit, walkable cities with everything close enough to get to without driving. (The type of stuff you see on websites like NUMTOTS on facebook). Controlled dense living. Museums and parks all in easy reach. Cafes on every corner.
But then there’s the historic city. And there’s really a variety of lives here: maybe the part of your city is poor and the government doesn't really care about it's access to public transit, immigrants often living in dense quarters out of necessity. Everything's in walking distance because you can't afford to go out any further. It’s a city of characters- old Dickens characters on every block who sit out on the porch and say hi to passerbys. No cafes on the corner- but bodegas and no frills food that could compete with the largest Michelin star restaurant. When my mother tells me of her childhood days growing up in Brooklyn, she speaks with a New York accent that becomes more intense with every passionate word. She hardly ventured out of her neighborhood- everything was there, why would they leave?
The localized view of urban life is overlooked but important. I mean, really, that’s the whole point of a city. You don’t need to drive far to get what you need. You should have everything in close quarters. People live in a cultural sphere of characters- it’s not planned, not predictable, full of characters and full of messes.
As I moved away from New York to live in England for university, I started to get the ‘question’ more and more. If I’m the New York representative, people want to know. What’s it like to live in New York? Is it like the movies? Is it really that fast-paced? How do you survive?
I’m still working on some of my answers to these questions. But one thing’s for sure, I am a New Yorker. And that may mean a few different things to people. But no matter the paradigm- local, commuter, or gossip girl, I’ve always had the city in the palm of my hand, and I think that’s really what it’s all about.
- Alexandra Kytka