I am not a native New Yorker. But like many people before me, I find myself more at home in New York City than anywhere else I have lived. The thrill of coming home and realizing I actually live here has not diminished. I knew I was a “goner” after I returned from an absence of several weeks and found myself in the Times Square subway station in August. It was hot, sticky, and smelly as only a crowded New York subway station in summer can be, but as the crowds bustled around me, all I could think was how much I loved this place and how glad I was to be back!
Inexorable, reliable, crowded . . . the NY subway ties the city together (#11-13)
That kind of silly euphoria doesn’t last long, but there are many reasons that even the unusual challenges of “NYC” are worth putting up with. Here are a few of the things that make up my personal map of New York City:
- Coming out on our porch in the morning, I love my view of the city—the city as symbol . . . the skyline of Manhattan with the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, the Queensboro Bridge arching beneath them, and the East River reflecting it all.
- I love the porch itself and our house, which is characteristic of this city and, particularly, our neighborhood of Astoria. The house is over 100 years old. It was owned for 85 years before us by an Italian immigrant family who planted the fig tree brought from Italy that still flourishes in the back yard, far from its native climate.
- I love the greeny wildness of our back yard hidden among the brick and concrete walls that surround it.
- I love our friends’ large shared backyard, just down the block, that has hosted so many feasts and poker nights and campfires. This community of friends of long standing living on the same block is one of our greatest joys and support systems in our life, here.
- As I walk down our tree-lined block in Astoria, I love the evidence of the changing history of our neighborhood—from the old Italian and Greek families who founded Astoria (and still make it the largest Greek city outside of Athens), to the newer influx of Indian, Pakistani, Brazilian and other nationalities. Our block party this summer was a crazy mixture of the old families and the new ones, each committed to this block.
- I love that walking to the subway at eight in the morning I can smell curry wafting out of houses I pass by.
- I love that any time of day I can hear multiple languages spoken on the streets around my house. There are 120 different nationalities living in Astoria—almost two-thirds of the nations in the world.
- I love that although our neighborhood is an odd mixture of homes, warehouses, auto body shops, bodegas, and museums, children play happily on our street and it feels homey to us.
- I love that we can walk to our church—that like our neighborhood it is made up of very different kinds of people: composers, teachers, immigrants, musicians, policemen, actors, janitors, producers; that at our potluck dinners we eat food from all over the world and like it; that we speak many languages.
- I love that the streets where we do most of our daily shopping are such a mishmash of options—an Italian deli for salamis and cheeses, a Greek butcher, a French bakery, a Greek shop for yoghurt and olives, the vegetable markets, the Pakistani restaurants, the neighborhood “fast food” of falafel sandwiches or the kebab cart.
- I love the inexorability, reliability, accessibility of the subway—common, crowded, and busy, it ties the city together and makes it feel like any part of it is at your fingertips.
- I love that riding the subway I have the freedom to be anonymous, while at the same time observing the hundreds of different faces and stories passing through my car.
- I love that most of the people in New York will stand to one side on the escalators coming up out of the subway to allow those walking up the escalators to pass by. In other American cities few people follow this rule, but here we walk quickly, on the sidewalks especially, and we don’t tolerate amblers very well.
- I love that even in a city of 8 million people, I bump into people I know more often than other places because everyone is out on the street. Being on the street is a necessary way to get around for most of us, but people also love the exercise of it and the energy of the streets. The energy is palpable—in Manhattan, especially, it can be a dizzying pleasure—a rush.
- I love the way the city changes with the seasons. In spring, the bright, bright green of budding trees in the parks heralds the return of warmer days, and everyone comes out to sit on the grass and breathe fresh air. I love that you can track every shift in the seasons through the fresh-from-the-farm food and flowers at the bustling Union Square Greenmarket.
- The playgrounds in Central Park, with all their sizes and designs—pyramids in one, spraying water fountains in another, fairytale characters in another, are always sources of joy for children—particularly after long winter days. When my daughter was three days old, in the first warm days of April, we took my nephew to sail his toy boat at the Conservatory Water in the Park. As we sat among the happy throngs, she lifted up her tiny face to the sun.
- In summer, the city is more relaxed and expansive. I love how every park and pier has its own free summer festival of music or film or theatre.
- I love Madison Square Park on a summer night, lying on the grass with my family in the twilight (surrounded by the Flatiron and other beautiful buildings), listening to a free Laura Cantrell concert, and eating burgers and concretes from the Shake Shack.
- I love having brunch or a drink or a dinner on the sidewalk at Pastis or Lupa or one of the many sidewalk cafes or restaurants in the warm weather. I love having a meal with my friends at Tournesol, our neighborhood French bistro, where they know us and are willing to squeeze us in even on the busiest of nights.
- I love watching Pather Panchali (an Indian film by Satyajit Ray), sitting on the grass at Socrates Sculpture Park while picnicking on Indian food sold for the film, and watching the sun set over Manhattan and the East River. This little park is only a few blocks from our house and we love the free foreign film festival (complete with accompanying food) they sponsor every summer.
- I love sitting out under the trees on a warm summer night at the Bohemian Beer Garden in Astoria (the last one in New York), sharing a pitcher of Czech beer, eating bratwurst, and listening to live polka music.
- I loved the city’s reaction to the Blackout of the Summer of 2003. I walked for four and a half hours to get home from 21st Street in Manhattan, making my way over the Queensboro Bridge (59th Street), so I had plenty of time to watch the thousands of people thronging the streets react to what was happening . . . from the initial fears that the city was under attack, again, to our understanding that it was a massive accidental blackout. People were calm and careful, looking out for each other and trying to be helpful and resourceful. New Yorkers were determined to handle this well. It was heartening to see. That night, after picnicking with friends in their backyard, we all went up on their roof and saw the Manhattan skyline as we may never see it again—dark buildings silhouetted against a full moon. It was hushed, beautiful, otherworldly.
- I love Autumn in New York, when the lazier summer days are reinvigorated by the crisp, cooler weather and the renewed energy of seasons and semesters beginning again.
- I love the huge tree in Fort Tryon Park that turns a bright, startling yellow in Autumn, and gradually transforms the lawn beneath into a glowing carpet.
- I love Winter in New York, when we bundle up against the wind whistling through skyscraper canyons.
- I love the Christmas windows at Bergdorf’s—intricate, involved, odd, and enchanting.
- I love walking through Central Park by myself at night watching the snow fall in the light from the park lamps, loving the quiet of it, until I begin to hear the music and laughter coming from the skating rink where I meet my family. They are cold and tired, but exhilarated and full of pride in their skating.
- I loved hiking through the blizzard of 2003 to attend a performance of Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera, and finding that most of the theatre was full, six-foot snow drifts no great impediment to opera lovers.
- I love going to the Christmas concert at the Cloisters where old music sung in an old space reminds me that I am tied to the people of faith who sang these songs, who sat in this space, who meditated on this art before me. There is perspective and encouragement to be gained from those generations, however far removed.
- I return to the Cloisters (the Medieval Art collection of the Met Museum, housed in a medieval monastery at the top of Manhattan), again and again. I am always moved by art housed in an appropriate and meditative space, instead of sterile, generic halls. I love the garden at the Cloisters that changes with the seasons, but always overlooks the Hudson River and cliffs and rolling hills—the beginning of open country flowing into the crowded city.
- I love the disorientation of coming up from the subway in Chinatown and only seeing and hearing Chinese for a short time.
- love eating salt-fried squid at New York Noodletown in Chinatown. It looks like a low-end diner and has some of the fastest service around, but we’re there because it tastes just right.
- I love ducking into an underground shop with my husband for reinvigorating Chinese reflexology foot massages while waiting for our friend’s art show to begin.
- I love walking through Jackson Heights, smelling incense, hearing street vendors, seeing saris, and feeling like I could be in India, again.
- I love eating what has been called the best Thai food on the continent at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Sripaphai in Queens.
- I love the way every space is used in the city. One of my favourite uses for it is theatres, everywhere, in every conceivable size and shape, inhabited by performances of every conceivable size and shape as well.
- I loved sitting in a packed-out Film Forum for a double-bill at the Peter Sellers Retrospective, hearing everyone around me laughing until we cry.
- I love celebrating special occasions—a birthday, my brother’s going-away dinner—at Babbo, savoring some of the best food I have ever eaten.
- I love Clinton Street on the Lower East Side, where funky bistros and funny shops still share space with plumbers and hardware stores.
- I love the overwhelming vastness of the Metropolitan Museum‘s art collection—from the intimacy of the medieval portraits to the energy of the huge Jackson Pollock with the one tiny red dot that only my seven-year-old nephew could spot, from the warmth of the Frank Lloyd Wright room to the majesty of the Temple of Dendur. I love that I don’t have to assimilate it all in one or several visits. I live here. I can go back.
- I love the energy, unpredictability, and surprise of the Whitney Biennials (the Whitney Museum’s biennial show of new contemporary art), complete with crowds of critical viewers.
- I love the design section of the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) with its gorgeous Art Deco lamps and sinuous furniture, and its simple, funky, and functional coffee pots and camping gear and signage.
- I have loved learning not to panic if I cannot hear great musicians perform. They will be back for another concert next year.
- I love hearing my friends sing and act at the Metropolitan Opera, the City Opera, on Broadway, in church basements, on outdoor stages, in homes.
- I love the hum of anticipation as chandeliers rise and lights dim at the Metropolitan Opera. I love that people are passionate about hearing great opera and willing to shush inconsiderate listeners—that in between acts, everyone has an opinion about the performances, the sets, the singing.
- I love that there are many small opera and theatre companies struggling to make ends meet, but they can always find singers and actors to rehearse and perform for the love of doing it well. And so, they understand without explanation why I spend my time doing it, too.
- I love the way people react to babies in New York—so many people, from the elegantly dressed older woman on the Upper East Side to the man cleaning the subway, are eager to stop and talk to a baby. This is where the famous New York standoffishness cracks.
- I love that people recycle furniture and almost anything else by putting it on the curb—that those of us who need it pick it right up and bring it home on the subway. New Yorkers don’t really do yard sales, but trash night on Park Avenue? That’s an occasion for an outing.
- I love never having to use a menu at the tiny Kabab CafÃ© in Astoria because Ali, the owner and chef, always tells us what we should eat that night. I love that I smoked my first hookah here.
- I love the sense of possibility and opportunity that seems inexhaustible in NYC. There is always a new show, a new opening, a new restaurant. At first, it is exciting and stimulating to try it all at once. But as I put down roots, I’ve learned to make choices and let the richness feed and energize without making me frantic.
A theme that runs through much of what I love best about New York City is that so many people here are passionate about something, working at it with all their might. Whether theatre or music or food or art or web design or finance, or a multitude of other more unusual talents, you will find the best of them represented here. If you were without peer where you used to live, here you will usually find yourself surrounded by people who are as good as you or better. While that can be depressing, especially when you are looking for work, it is also thrilling and challenging, pushing you to become better than you are and to see what you love more clearly. And if you used to feel that you were working in a vacuum, here people are eager to see your work and understand it. You can find someone who is good at almost anything in this city. If you need a special kind of acupuncture, you can find it. If you need an actor who speaks French to fill in at the last minute in a play, you can find him. The city is full of people who are passionate about what they do, full of hidden talents.
With this much passion and variety, there is a lot of strangeness and bizarre behavior. It would be hard to love New York without a strong sense of irony, and New Yorkers pride themselves on never being surprised by anything, however odd. There is something refreshing and amusing about this determination to let other people express themselves in their own way, but not allow them to provoke a stir.
Another obvious theme in my love for New York is that it is a truly global city. The sheer variety and numbers of people from all over the world make the city unparalleled. Because of waves of immigration over the years, there are many layers of global experience here, from those who have assimilated over generations to create a unique culture, to recent immigrants eager for authentic reminders of their homeland. And, without even trying, we are learning new things from each other—eating new food, combining new colors, hearing new sounds.
Between the passion and the variety, New Yorkers have learned to appreciate many shades of the richness and beauty in this life. When I went to India as a college student, through the haze of culture shock I found myself wondering at my limited understanding of God up to that point. A God who could create a culture so diametrically different from my own was so much more than I had imagined. New York is not a religious place. But those of us who know God see more appreciation for the glory and excellence of His creation, here, than we do in many other places that claim to be spiritually alive.
This city and the reasons I love it are important to me because the Christian life is hard. It is hard to know what you are called to do in life, and how your calling intersects with a world in need. In this city, it is impossible to forget the need. The struggles and the brokenness are everywhere. Because New York City exists as both symbolic city and real city, there is a constant tension between what people expect to become here and what their life really is. This is the same tension of the Christian life—”We see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV). I see the true nature of my life better through the prism of this city. And since the biblical descriptions of heaven are of a great city, I find my understanding of, and longing for, heaven shaped by my love of this city. I want my family to know this with me. I want to share it with people around me who are passionate about the same things.
All this richness and tension and beauty and difference—and we are at home.