What I remember above all from the late, lamented Charlie Rose show, which ran on PBS from 1991 to 2017, is what a relentless booster Rose (a North Carolina native) was for New York City. “Don’t you just love New York?” he would ask, irrepressibly, of his guests, often luminaries in the arts and media.  “Well, yes,” I would find myself thinking, as I watched. “And also, no.” I have always felt that ambivalence is the only honest attitude to a city as various and demanding as New York. To say simply that one loves it seems to me as reactionary as the claim sometimes made by Midwesterners and Southerners of my acquaintance that they hate the city.

“When a man is tired of London,” Samuel Johnson said in 1777, “he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.” The same must be true now of New York, which is a world capital, a kind of summa of human striving, in just the way that London was in Johnson’s day. The city tends to reflect back to us whatever we are feeling in a given moment. When we are feeling romantic, the city seems romantic; when we’re sour and cynical, the city seems that way, too. What the city promises is not happiness or beauty but a kind of ratification of our experience. We move to New York, or stay there, not because we are certain that life will go well—for newcomers, the first years are often harrowing—but because we are certain that it will happen. New York is where, for better and for worse, you get to have your life. Indianapolis and Beaufort and even La Jolla offer no similar guarantee.

For at least the last 40 years, defining one’s relationship to the city has meant coming to terms with money. New York is increasingly a victim of its own success. When a one-bedroom apartment in a middle-class neighborhood costs $30,000 a year, money inevitably begins to rout all other values. I like to think I’m the last one to complain about this. Here’s a striking fact, though, personal but also representative: in 15 years, a period in which my income has grown slowly but steadily, I have gone from a gentrifier in my Brooklyn neighborhood to one whose family is being inexorably shoved out. What does all this financial hurly-burly—the bonus-season rush of blood, the down payments carved out of family legacies—look like to the editorial assistants and firefighters and Lyft drivers without whom New York would not be New York? Think of all the anguished kitchen table conversations: Can we find a way to hang on for another year?

Maybe the best way to love New York is from a slight distance. Take the Metro-North into Grand Central, eat a fish stew at the Oyster Bar, go to a play—and leave with your personal dream of the city intact. To try actually to live in New York may be an eccentricity, like an insistence on hunting one’s own dinner. Why swim against the tide? Life must be sweeter in Cheyenne or Galveston—or more to the point, in Nyack or Cold Spring.

I have looked at New York mostly through the high, narrow windows of midtown office buildings. For more than two decades, I have worked as a Bartleby in large corporate law firms. The New York legal world is harsh, and over time, a certain cheerful cynicism becomes the price of the ticket. While New York has many distinct professional spheres, they all tend to gather toward the same point, the friction of competing ambitions, the friendships that in retrospect are understood as rivalries. A bright, chilly, hardness is the attitude that the city cultivates in us, sun glinting on steel.  

The new, post-pandemic norms that have emptied the office buildings and thinned out the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks have given many New Yorkers a taste of the frictionless life that we once had to move to the suburbs to get. We don’t deal with as many people now, with their ego needs and repellent habits and curious beliefs. Certainly, this makes life easier. A frictionless city, though, is a city denatured. New York’s status as a creative capital, already endangered by the affordability crisis, cannot last without the friction. I suspect that, even as we embrace some changes as permanent, we will seek, perhaps unconsciously, ways of recreating the friction. New institutions will emerge to provide it. Maybe some heedless young entrepreneur will start throwing pop-up costume balls on the A train.          

For me, the great, unsung New York book is William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (2004), a tough-minded, unsparing history of the recovery efforts at Ground Zero. Langewiesche’s book made people angry—his readings were picketed by public employee unions—because at a time of righteous triumphalism, he told us things we didn’t want to hear, including that some members of the FDNY might have been engaged in looting on the commercial concourses prior to the collapse of the South Tower. (I embraced the myths as much as anyone. Like all New Yorkers, I carried a seething sublimated rage for years, which was sometimes expressed in behavior by which I am now embarrassed.) It is evident, however, that American Ground is a deep and complex tribute to the city, to the energies and the people that drove its renewal.

A reversal soon occurred by which people began moving toward the disaster rather than away from it. The reaction was largely spontaneous, and it cut across class lines as New Yorkers of all backgrounds tried to respond . . . The urgency of the job swept away ordinary responsibilities and the everyday dullness of family life, and it made nonsense of office paperwork and tedious professional routines. Traditional hierarchies broke down too . . . Among the ruins . . . an unscripted experiment in American life had gotten underway.

Langewiesche’s account reminds us why, for years after 9/11, everyone wanted a piece of New York. Steelworkers and nurses had driven from Ohio and Indiana and Tennessee to offer their help, and they wore their FDNY hats and Ground Zero t-shirts back home until they fell apart. Now things have returned to normal, and they resent us again. Plus ça change.

The city’s abiding hostility to its middle class was registered by John Updike in the late 1950s. Updike, then in his mid-twenties, had made a place for himself in New York, working at The New Yorker and living in the West Village. Even so, he moved his young family to Ipswich, Massachusetts, seeking “someplace where I could at least park the car for free.” Perhaps he also moved to be closer to his subject, which he describes as “middles”—the middle class and its moral and spiritual aspirations. Life in the city is mostly lived according to a barbell distribution: glamor on top, squalor on the bottom. This can leave those working, raising children, and contributing to their 401(k)s feeling out of step, even as we believe that the city would implode without us. We carry our fear of falling like a tortoise shell, while both the rich and the poor are unconcerned.

This resentment has to be managed and mitigated if one intends to stay here. If you’re lucky, you eventually realize the workaday New Yorker’s dream and get a little weekend retreat. There you set the norms. But the last such house seems to have been grabbed in those panicked first months of the pandemic, leaving the rest of us marooned now amid the summer heat and rising crime. Those unassuming bungalows in Stroudsburg and Cooperstown have become a particularly salient marker of class division and its accompanying resentments.

Some of us try to colonize the city by returning habitually to the same places, but New York won’t stand still long enough for that strategy to have any chance of success. The bars and restaurants where I courted my now-wife in the late 2000s are mostly long gone. Our first apartment as a married couple, the basement of a Brooklyn Heights brownstone, has been renovated almost beyond recognition. The physical environment changes, the styles change. What remain are the big abstractions: ambition, reinvention, creativity, possibility. When you can no longer hold these in your mind, or when they come to seem insubstantial, it’s probably time to leave.

When my son was nine or ten, we started taking him up to West Point for football games. I’m not sure what I wanted him to get from the experience, but it wasn’t an understanding of the triple option, or not just that. I thought of West Point then as standing in opposition to New York: order vs chaos, duty vs self-indulgence, the pastoral vs the urban. I wanted to point at the cadets and say, in effect, “That’s what it’s supposed to look like.” Now I think that there’s much that unites them. New York does represent chaos, but each of us makes his own private order within it, and that involves a kind of duty, too. It’s one thing to be 25, as I once was here, at professional loose ends, riding the subway at 3 a.m. with nothing but time. But if you want to work and raise a family in New York, you’d better be prepared to stand a post.

Photo: Nico De Pasquale Photography/Moment via Getty Images

Langewiesche responded to the criticism of American Ground with an afterword to the paperback edition that described his intention to get beyond homiletic formulations about what happened at the Trade Center site in order to reach a more nuanced and ultimately more humane truth:

The World Trade Center site was an extremely complex place, loaded with emotion and political symbolism . . . I wrote about it with complete candor, expressing my opinions openly, as I always do. I realized that the approach I took might offend a certain number of people who subscribed to different views—including the essentially two-dimensional one that [] depicts the Trade Center project in maudlin and “heroic” terms . . . More impressive, I felt, was another sort of American greatness that emerged at the site—a complex weave that included diverse acts and motivations, and also a culture of improvisational genius that seemed enormously encouraging about the future.

This is not a moment of great optimism in New York. We fear that, after three decades of progress, we are losing ground—spending down the inheritance of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years like prodigal heirs. Will some new political culture rise to meet the city’s post-pandemic challenges—and as with the Trade Center cleanup, will it take the license granted by some disaster to bring it into being?

New Yorkers tend to identify with our city’s leaders, so long as we know that they care. We tolerated the abrasive Ed Koch for two decades, because he so clearly loved the job; we tired of Bill de Blasio, who seemed to think himself meant for better things, inside of 12 months. For the city to flourish requires some measure of historical consciousness, in two senses. We need to remember the ideas that have been tried and failed, because someone will always come around to propose them again. We also need to take up our duty to the city’s dead, who ask us not to disgrace their memory. (That my dead may not be the same as yours, or the dead of Harlem the same as the dead of Woodside, is another kind of problem.) And yet the city’s perpetual renewal requires a kind of forgetting, too. We need to cultivate an irrational optimism, to let hope triumph over experience, or we would scarcely attempt anything. Sometimes the city simply doesn’t work, and we struggle to recall that it ever did. So we hold on, waiting for that sense of renewal, collective or merely personal, that makes New York sing to us once again.

Top Photo: imagedepotpro/E+ via Getty Images


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