New York: Revisiting My First Love


I’m fond of saying that I did not move away from New York, I broke up with it. And for several years afterward, when I would return, it knew I was there. There was a bitterness about it that exes can have – as if it were saying to me, “See, I’m getting along just fine without you. I don’t need you. Look at how I have barely noticed you’ve been gone.”

But this time, I found it had changed. It had left behind its wanton ways, and its rough edges had softened a bit. The city had turned to creature comforts; it had become more careful, more kind; it seemed almost to nurture its brood, somehow. As if it had settled down, enjoying the very lifestyle it has always eschewed. Something I read recently put into words this feeling:

[T]he streets the mayor and his friends have turned into faux piazzas… [are] an insult to those of us whose notion of New York City still includes dark corners and hard surfaces. These changes, applied with the superficiality of decals or appliqué, signify a new city, a lowercase city, where blocks are crowded with gelato and yogurt shops, traditional Neapolitan pizza restaurants and cupcake bakeries, where we can all pretend life is beautiful all the time.

There’s a farmers’ market in Port Authority. The traffic islands that guide drivers through the Broadway/5th Ave. crossover on 23rd Street look like the Tuilleries in Paris. My friend’s street in SoHo, once home to sweatshops and sketchy characters, now boasts a Vespa store, a surfboard shop and a Bloomingdale’s. On the corner of my old street in TriBeCa, which had the “bad deli” that smelled like dirty mop water and spilled cat food, now houses a Quiznos. You could conceivably sunbathe in Times Square.

I’m happy for New York, I really am. I feel like my ex-city has finally gotten its act together, and I’m glad it can be less grueling to live there. But there is a part of me that wishes it still was a city that had expectations of you. You had to be of a certain caliber in order to win its attention. It could put you through hell sometimes, but it could also give you the kind of life-changing experiences that legends are made of.


9 thoughts on “New York: Revisiting My First Love

  1. I LOVED this post! Its funny b/c I moved to NYC 10 years ago and those first years were some of the most amazing years of my life (those life-changing experiences you spoke of). We caught the tail end of it, but even then there was still a bit of edge left to the city (the West 40s was still called Hells Kitchen, the old timers still cautioned us against going to Alphabet City alone, SATC hadn’t really blown up yet). In recent years my friends and I have moved away (to different cities in the US, foreign countries), most of us just needing a break from NYC. And when we speak now, we talk about the great times we had in “Old NY” and how much the city has changed…
    Its funny to hear people who have just moved to the city– the things they talk about are those “piazzas” on Broadway, which cupcake shop is the best, how lovely the city is, how friendly everyone is. I just want to yell, “That’s not what New York is about! You don’t understand the city at all!” But I guess that is what its become. Its both good and bad I guess.
    I still adore New York– for me it will always be home and I’m sure I’ll end up back there someday. But I do miss the good old days when you “had to be of a certain caliber in order to win its attention” 🙂
    Thank you for these great words!

  2. Ah, my first and last love too. I appreciate much of the softening – the bike lanes, the veggies, places to sit that don’t smell like pee. But I still remember Times Sq before Disney made it over, Coney Island before the Mermaid Parade (though I love that too), the meatpacking distict when you could go there to actually purchase meat to cook, the LES when you and I ran unsuccessfully from the rats on the vacant Norfolk St, and I don’t know if fondly is the right word, but something. I loved it then, as it was. I love it now as it’s evolving. I suspect I’ll love it as it will be when my ashes are sprinkled into the East River.

  3. Yes. I know the New York you’re talking about. I see what you mean about its new accessibility making it easy for just about anyone to ‘survive’ it. In the ’80s I lived in an artists’ loft in the meatpacking district when it was filled with Pork’n’Pack trucks, chicken feathers, teenage runaways and transvestite prostitutes (oh, and S&M bars and biker gangs). Barely recognize the place now with its members-only SoHo House and chichi shops and restaurants…I suppose it’s easier now, but perhaps NYC street cred has devolved into something like those diplomas for sale online?

  4. I feel the same way. It’s funny. I wrote a post breaking up with NY a little while ago too. And that’s very much what it’s like.

    At the end I say how I’ll always love NY. And I will in some ways, I guess, but now looking back it’s very much a “Let’s be friends” sort of thing.

    When we went back this past September — we went to visit after Noah’s sister had a baby — I loved seeing my friends and all the amazing food places. Otherwise, I don’t ever see myself living there again. (What did I ever see in you, baby?)

    But you never know. Life is long. Of course, there’s always Rome, Paris, Tel Aviv and so many other cities. I’m not sure I want to be tied down.

  5. I’ve yet to visit NYC, but I plan to.

    However, I can really, really, really understand that feeling of breaking up with a city. I ran a coffeehouse in a small town, and when I left, I was truly heartbroken. People would ask me about that place3 after I moved away, and I would feel such a heartsick stab in response.

    Now here’s where the serendipity comes in, my dear. It’s NaNoWriMo, and on the first day, I typed a paragraph beginning: I didn’t just leave Ship Harbor. I broke up with it. That town broke my heart.

    Fun, huh?

  6. Hi Chris,
    Wonderful post. I love NY and yet it has been 20 years since I was there. I’ll be in the city sometime in the next few months and have some trepidation about seeing the changes I have only read of…

    Also, I received your email this morning, but can’t find an email address for you. Like to get in touch, can you send me contact info?

    Just ordered your book from Amazon. Can’t wait to read it (and will review on my book blog (and link to my Italy blog) in the near future.

    Lots to talk about with you… Ciao! Paula Russell

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