When I hear people who don’t live in New York City say how much they hate the city I always wonder what part of the New York they’ve visited. If it’s Times Square, I don’t blame them. If that were how I experienced the city, I’d hate it too.
I do understand the city isn’t for everyone. Lots of people prefer to be in less congested, more bucolic settings and/or have more space to live in. I actually can’t imagine living in the city without the ability to regularly leave for the country and space. But I still love New York City and if I had my way, I’d live here part of the time for the rest of my life.
I lived in the city right out of college for eleven years and then again as an adult after our children were launched. This second time has been for 16 plus years, but in May that time will all be ending and we’ll be moving upstate to live in our country house full time. Knowing I’ll soon be leaving New York has gotten me thinking about why I like New York so much and has reminded me that why I love New York is, in many ways, contrary to how a tourist thinks of and experiences the city.
My New York is a city of neighborhoods including mine on the Upper West Side. My city is a friendly, caring place where if everyone doesn’t know my name, they at least recognize me and will, if necessary, look out for me.
Most tourists think of New York as the midtown area, consisting of Times Square—a place in my opinion that should be avoided at all costs—and the streets between Fifth and Park Avenue from 42nd Street to Central Park. This is where the high-end hotels are as well as the most expensive restaurants and the same international boutiques you’re likely to find in every other major city in the world. But it’s not my New York.
Of course I go into midtown—but not often. Most Christmas times, like so many tourists, I make a pilgrimage to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and the windows at Saks and Bergdorf’s and stop and have a drink at a bar in one of the fancy hotels. I also go to the theatre every chance I get and Lincoln Center and the art museums—all in midtown. But otherwise, I stick to my neighborhood.
I live in a medium sized prewar apartment building where the doorman knows me and my husband and my grown children, their spouses and my grandchildren too. They may not know every member of my family by name, but they know them all well enough to let them into the building without calling up to check. They’ll also give them our key if we’re not in town.
The doormen also know the minute details in our lives and everyone else’s in the building. They inquire if they see me by myself on a Friday night, wondering where my husband is. They also keep tabs on me if they see my husband out by himself during the week. They know we leave for the country most weekends and where we’ve gone on vacation.
Some may think all this interaction is overly intrusive. I think it’s being neighborly. In many ways our building is like a small town where everyone knows who you are and looks out for you.
It’s also true at our typical New York City grocery store just around the corner. It’s not Whole Foods with its fancy labels and boutique cheese selection, but the produce, thanks to Asian owners who know what they’re doing, and fussy Hispanic customers who also know their fruits and vegetables, the produce is always fresh and reasonably priced. It’s at least as good as Whole Foods and much cheaper—I know because I’ve checked. The store is also friendly. I lived in a small town in New Jersey for twenty-three years, but no cashier ever called me Sweetie until I moved to this neighborhood and became a regular customer. Now I’ve come to expect it. These people know me and I know them.
Contrary to many myths about the city, New Yorkers look out for one another and can be counted on to help if you’re lost or in trouble. The city is such a communal place that when I rode the crosstown bus last week with my nineteen- month old grandson on my lap, the entire front of the bus where we were sitting got involved. By the time we got out at Amsterdam, I knew where my seat companions were from, Poland, and they knew my grandson was in from L.A.
But you don’t need a baby to make a travel friend. It’s not unusual when I’m riding the subway for women my age to ask where I’m headed and what show I’m seeing if I’m riding the train in the evening. In every one of those encounters, what show I’m seeing is just the icebreaker with conversations then veering off from theatre and restaurant recommendations to quick synopses of each other’s lives. This has happened so frequently that I no longer think of it as unusual and recognize it for what it is, New Yorkers at their best.
This is not to say that I’m sad about leaving the city. I think it’s time to downsize and simplify my life. But I’ll always treasure these past sixteen years and attribute my stay here as a great transition into retirement and helping me stay mentally fit. I also imagine visiting often. After all, I know my way around and can get on the subway to reach my favorite neighborhoods.