Samuel Johnson once said of London, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Yale’s New Yorkers praise their hometown with similar enthusiasm, though others make their disdain for the city clear. With Yale so close to a place as magnetic and imposing, it’s hard for Elis not to have an opinion.
I moved to New York from Seattle a year ago, and quickly realized that if I took part in all of the city that my life could afford, I would likely end up arrested, sleepless or dead. It’s easy for non-New Yorkers to reduce the city to its popular conceptions and national mythology. But I find that New York is first and foremost a city of the unexpected, brimming with paradoxes and defying clichés.
On my second day in The City — capital letters necessary for some, abhorred by others — my friends took me out to dinner. Our waiter was an elderly, thoroughly Italian man, with no desire to card our obviously underage group. His tolerance and moustache were impressive. The alcohol and marinara flowed freely from our well-coiffed host, and I struck up a conversation with him after the meal. The waiter provided my first surprise in the city; he was a former Catholic priest whose father had studied here at Yale.
And, speaking of the unexpected, did anyone know there are tennis courts in Grand Central?
But what of the real myths, those that have been overturned by my experience of the city? For one, most New Yorkers are not necessarily aggressive and hostile. Sure, they’re busy, but they have to be. The towers are high in New York City, but the cracks are as deep, and a certain drive is needed to avoid slipping through them. That said, there is undeniable kinship and pride among New Yorkers, as well as a desire to show off their home and to welcome those with the guts to tackle it.
New York is in most respects far from a microcosm of the United States; it is overwhelmingly liberal, highly educated, frenetic and diverse. But, in its persistent engine of opportunity and its proverbial (speaking of clichés) melting-pot, it may come closer to being an “American” city than any other in the union.
To outsiders, the city may seem the epitome of soulless urban life, the concrete jungle. But countless times in comedy clubs, concert halls, theatres and living rooms, I have seen soul become New York’s commodity of choice.
Nor is New York the massive, singular behemoth of popular imagination, but rather a collection of neighborhoods. The city as a whole casts an imposing shadow, but its individual slices are uniquely intimate. There’s a good chance you fit somewhere in New York City. The diversity of people, places and their respective attributes and attitudes is striking. People-watching in subway cars is either fun or scary, depending on the time of day. Language-guessing on Canal Street can be nearly impossible.
Money may flow through Wall Street, power through midtown and culture throughout, but New York as a whole is more than a means to these ends. It lives for itself, for its people and their experiences. The city is equal parts spectacle and character, gloss and substance, brains and heart. It is as beautiful as it is ugly, as generous as it is stingy; its people are as endearing as they are unbearable.
It is in discontinuity, variety, contradictions and paradoxes that New York’s fabled energy resides, the one cliché with which I can wholeheartedly agree. In the words of Le Corbusier, the architect who designed the U.N. headquarters, New York City is “a beautiful catastrophe.”
There is a divide at Yale between New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers, a love-hate ambivalence tied to America’s most magnetic city, and for good reason. New York’s many misconceptions give evidence to how indecipherable such a place can seem from the outside, and thus how comfortably some Yalies criticize it.
But inside the tangle, while walking through the park, taking the 6 train downtown, conversing with a cabbie, finding a new barbershop or simply walking its grids, New York’s inhabitants uncover, know and own their city.
There are many passionate New Yorkers here at Yale who defend their home from its detractors until their final breath. After experiencing the “beautiful catastrophe” of New York City myself, and taking in all its surprises, I am happy to count myself as one of them.
Alex Klein is a freshman in Davenport College.