In three words or less how would I encapsulate New York City? Answer – What a rush! Unlike most cities that gradually wash over you like dipping your toes in the pool before the plunge, New York is baptism by fire. Even getting into one of the city’s 5 Burroughs (the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island) is a hectoring roller coaster ride. The trip is a hellacious mad dash whether by car, by train, by ship, or by plane. The traffic is frenzied, the subway is clanky, the boulevards are chaotic, the harbor is choppy, and the airports (JFK or LaGuardia) are messy. The trek is a pulsating, gut punch worthy of traversing Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell. Such is the biting hospitality of Gotham, a city wrapped in the black and white comic strip colors of Batman (writer Bill Finger swapped out Manhattan for the more mysterious Gotham in 1940).
Welcome to New York where zero fucks are given! Such desensitized intensity and insolent whiplash turns off many, perhaps most, but is one of the many reasons I relish in "the city that never sleeps." I suppose it makes sense. By virtue of a nomadic lifestyle conversations inevitably lead to questions of my origin story. People ask:
"Where are you from sir?" Them
"New York City!" Them
"Never lived there" Me
The answer is virtually the same wherever I go, no matter the continent or zip code. In my sharply direct demeanor, brash quips, and wry sense of humor, what the Zoomers call my vibe, it seems I convey the Gotham verve, a polite way of saying I am an unabashed asshole. If the shoe fits wear it with pride, and so I do, and New Yorkers do likewise.
A sharply direct demeanor, brashness, and wry sense of humor is the Gotham vibe.
Over the years, I have come to New York many times. It began when I was a Midshipman in the early 2000s on summer cruise from Annapolis walking around the city on liberty wearing my milk man costume (Navy Summer Whites). Back then it was a spectacle to parade around New York in uniform. 911 was still a vivid memory, and a reflexive patriotism followed service members the way fanboys flock to Hall of Famers. That meant cars full of winsome gals hollering at you while driving by, free drinks from random strangers, and gratuitous shouts of “Thank you for your service.” In 2004 my group was invited behind the dugout at a Red Sox Yankees game to shake hands with Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon (a Midshipman was Arod’s cousin). Such celebrity treatment was bizarre and intimidating to rookie officers in training, but we made the best of it, sober or otherwise.
I would go back years later to spend time with a girlfriend (what a simp) who lived in Brooklyn. Her pad was a much sought-after brownstone, a shoe boxed sized studio in a swanky neighborhood called Park Slope. It was then that I really fell in love with the city. It became tradition to venture back every Labor Day to enjoy a relatively empty city (everyone leaves for the last long weekend of summer) with friends. When I visit, I stay in different spots: Times Square, the Financial District (locals call it “FIDI”), sometimes Williamsburg (Brooklyn). This November I stayed in Soho (named after “South of Houston Street” in London).
One of the best things about the city is how radically different in character New York is depending on where you are. Looking for something more highbrow? There are museums galore: the Guggenheim, the Met, or my personal favorite the Frick. Interested in seeing a show, checkout Broadway. How about some Jazz? Checkout Smalls in the West Village. Up for shopping – try Chelsea Market. Like the outdoors, checkout one of a dozen parks from Battery Park, to Prospect Park and of course Central Park. Interested in weirdo watch – Times Square is front row. If you want to go full snob, checkout the galleries in Soho where the likes of Andy Warhole and Jean-Michel Basquiat transformed New York’s shuttered factories into creative space.
Neighborhoods are fashion in Gotham.
Indeed – there is so much visual stimulation in Gotham it can be overwhelming. The shifting architectural landscape of the city ranges from the cast iron chic facades in Soho to the Neogothic Trinity Church on Broadway across from Wall Street to Art Deco’s masterpiece and NYC’s iconic centerfold – the vaunted Chrysler Building. There’s more of course – the bejeweled mansions on Park Avenue, the luxuriant "Triangle Below Canal Street" (AKA TriBeCa - my favorite hood), The Campbell inside Grand Central Station (a touristy but posh cocktail lounge), the colossal Statue of Liberty, and let’s not forget the Wall Street Bull (shown to the right) astride the New York Stock Exchange. What a rush indeed.
There is something for everyone in New York. Some folks prefer the more avant-garde Brooklyn, others like the Manhattan skylines, those trending towards married life opt for the more family-friendly residential districts of Queens. Neighborhoods are fashion in Gotham, so for a New York minute East Harlem is the place to be then Turtle Bay (read more here); trends come and go. Since the pandemic, many New Yorkers have fled to Hoboken or Union City in nearby Jersey, commuting daily via Path Train, city bus or the scenic ferry across the Hudson to Manhattan. Whatever your chosen place of residence or refuge New York demands a mental toughness, honed fast-twitch muscles, and a knee-jerk harshness to survive never mind thrive.
Subway Tears and Skyline Highs
There is a wavelength, a hustle and flow to Empire City. New York is not for the faint of heart. It is a place where empires rise, fortunes fold, and dreams often die. Ambitious types flock by the tens of thousands to make it big in art, fashion, finance, politics, publishing, theater, writing, or just make it period, and the perennial churn of competition comes with collateral damage. If you are too slow, too meandering, too delicate the city will steam roll you in the most unforgiving fashion, and yet that impersonal ruthlessness melts into a collective bond that forges a unique New York character. Is the shared crucible of urban blood sport and wily street grind enough to bind such a dark, discombobulated, and edgy city together?
Everyone in New York city has a breakdown at some point.
Yes, and no. A battle tested New Yorker and friend of mine said that everyone in New York city has a breakdown at some point. At least once a month she encounters someone on the subway bawling in tears, their pain is tactile, uncomfortable, and goes unnoticed like a deer carcass laying on the side of a busy highway, ignored by passengers too absorbed in their own daily drudgery to console the troubled. On the surface, such a vacant coldness strikes outsiders as inhuman and yet virtually every New Yorker can relate, they can empathize with the subway meltdown because they had one too. Part of what defines the city is pushing through the depressive lows in the hopes of reaching the addictive highs the Big Apple offers when fortunes shift back in your favor.
There is virtue in stoicism, but too much atomized apathy can be self-destructive. So, many New Yorkers turn to the familiar, and yet that too can be antagonistic. New York is a city of clashing communities: Afro-Caribbeans, Chinese, Dominicans, Indians, Italians, Jews, Koreans, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Puerto Ricans, WASPs, Jets / Giants, Mets / Yankees fans alike. To the casual onlooker these groups cohere in the vaguely blended quilt of New York’s diverse tapestry. However, make no mistake, New York is a turf war, a fight for respect, power, and influence. Such is the nature of Gotham’s tribal politics and conflicting identity. The average American from flyover country naïve to these realities finds themselves smack dab in the middle of the rancor. What a rush.
New York is a turf war, a fight for respect, power, and influence.
What unifies the city is the black and white, the highs and lows, the turbulence and tribulations of life in New York. Strangely, as my friend said, once you survive the first year or so, New York’s storms begin to settle, the hustle and flow of Gotham’s acrimonious rhythm ceases to grate against you and eventually the roller coaster ride slows to a pleasant pace through a placid, even beautified metropolis. Don't be fooled though, the calm belies the storm that could rain down upon you at any moment so never let your guard down. New Yorkers adapt, they fuse with the chaos until Gotham City becomes home. Like I said, New York is not for everyone despite having something for everyone.
Fall of Empire
Like cities across the US, New York is in severe decline I am sad to say, begging the question what comes next? Succession is one of my favorite shows (much of it takes place in New York) and in many ways the Shakespearian fall of the House of Roy (based on the Murdoch Family) echoes the decay of New York City. The stewards of Gotham, like the clownish Roy’s desperate to succeed Father Cronus AKA Logan Roy, are incompetent, corrupt, and negligent (NYC Mayor Eric Adams is under FBI investigation). Cities are not quite delicate Greenhouses completely unable to fend for themselves, nonetheless they require responsible and skilled custodians to care for them, ideally to guide them to greener pastures and higher plateaus. Such leadership has been lacking in New York as it has been in the United States for some time.
Elite Gothamites confine themselves to delusional echo chambers where woke groupthink subverts independent thinking and a vapid self-satisfying discourse is par excellence.
The elite Gothamites who reside in the prized neighborhoods of Tribeca, Park Avenue, and Chelsea are categorically unimpressive, and detached from New York’s plight. They too have succumbed to bubblenomics and confine themselves to delusional echo chambers where woke groupthink subverts independent thinking, cultural excellence, and instead celebrates a dressed down sloppiness, and vapid self-satisfying discourse is par excellence. Such obtuse haughtiness conceals a crippling insecurity – they have not a clue what to do about the creeping catastrophe enveloping their city. While the caretakers of the city gorge themselves on ostentatious "wealthporn" New York rots from the inside out.
Much of New York is Batman’s comic book lore come to life. Violent crime is rampant, the streets are dirty, wreak of urine, and are befouled by the spread of tent cities and garbage strewn across city blocks. There is a festering refugee crisis, a collapse of commercial real-estate (read NBER's shocking report here), a cost-of-living crisis, and a bankrupt municipal government. Indeed, more than a few New Yorkers have left the city as a result, flocking to nearby Connecticut or distant Miami among others. There is little will to address the explosive social problems either, as far as I can tell.
New York has been through hard times before. The War of 1812 turned New York into a battlefield. The turn of the 20th century saw imported organized crime despoil the streets at the height of “Lucky” Luciano’s mafia reign. Then came the explosion of inner-city crime in the 70’s and 80’s when Times Square was flooded with drug pushers, pimps and sex shops (well documented in Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver). Everyone remembers the terror attacks of 911 when the entire world fixed its sights on a city befogged by ash and smoke. Today presents a fresh set of challenges. Will the city rally as it has in the past or are the best days of Gotham well behind it?