A few weeks ago Caitlin and I visited New York as our last trip of the summer, a last reprieve before fall semester. We stayed at my older brother’s apartment in the Lower East Side, on Houston Street. It’s what you would expect of a New York apartment for a young professional: simple and functional decor, cramped, moderately run down, and windows overlooking dirty alleyways. The entrance to the apartment is a sketchy, non-descript metal door covered with graffiti. The first floor landing reeks of the trash from the neighboring Mexican restaurant. All this for a ridiculous rent.
From what I gathered, many post-college professionals like to live in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side for its nightlife. There must have been at least three or four bars every block. Weekday nights, and especially on weekends, the streets became a kalaidoscope of inebriated New Yorkers dressed in the latest hip clothing, shouting, laughing, and cursing in a hedonic riot.
As an underage college student from a Boston suburb, all of this was overwhelming. Being from Boston, what urban nightlife looks like isn’t completely unknown to me, but Boston, in my opinion, is a much tamer city than New York. Comparing it to New York, one can see why Boston has its nickname of “town”. Comparing New York to other cities, one can see why it frequently symbolizes a city of excess and hedonism.
But that was just the impression that that particular neighborhood gave me. New York’s neighborhoods are incredibly distinct, in a way that I had never experienced with Boston. We went to Chelsea, the Meatpacking District, Chinatown, Little Italy, Financial District, SoHo, Garment District, and the Upper East Side, among others. Each neighborhood has its own distinct features: its own appearance, ethnic influences, and commercial focuses. KTown has excellent, authentic Korean barbeque. The Financial District sports Wall Street and gigantic skyscrapers. The Meatpacking district smells like sewage.
Then there’s Central Park. I hadn’t realized until this trip just how big Central Park is. In the middle of the park there is a castle from the top of which you get an awesome view. On the east side near the Met there’s an ancient Egyptian obelisk that was given to New York as a gift from some Egyptian president. On the south side there is an area with chess boards carved into stone tables where people can challenge the local masters.
I’m having a hard time tying everything together and keeping myself from digressing. It’s hard for me to decide which of my experiences is essential, and which are merely tangential. But I think the truth about NYC is that there is no such experience that is only tangential. The Empire State Building and Times Square do not characterize New York to the slightest extent. I don’t claim to understand New York the same way a native New Yorker would, but from my few trips, I can see how New York’s distinct feel comes from its mosaic-like nature. Perhaps one of the only unifying New York experience is the experience of its lack of unity, its chaos and discord.
Another universal New York trait might be its noise. Walt Whitman wrote, “Silence? What can New York-noisy, roaring, rumbling, tumbling, bustling, story, turbulent New York-have to do with silence?” More bothersome than its light pollution is its sound pollution. There is a constant din of city sounds: loud cars, loud talking, loud contstruction.
I’m definitely still a Bostonian. I prefer its quieter and cleaner streets, its crooked non-grid layout, and the fact that you can see the Prudential Center from almost anywhere. I like the more manageable Boston Common with its ducks and swans, the Charles and its sailboats, the harbor beautiful in the sunset. But who knows, maybe I’ll get bored one day and decide I want to see what’s it’s like living in New York City.