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Why I Live in New York: Personal Indulgences No. 13

Why I live in New York. New York City, that is. Manhattan, to be exact. Dirty. Dangerous. Expensive (so much so today that people who once thought of themselves as middle class now fear they’re only a few ladder-rungs above the have-nots. And the number of have-nots is heart-rending. But still . . .

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood and time suited only to people with a deep tolerance–or even need–for boredom. (Boredom precludes risk and can be very soothing.) I was not one of them. Even before I had two numbers to my age, I would often sit at our kitchen table and gaze through the window that looked out on the corner of the street and think, in a sort of melancholy stupor, There must be somewhere else.

There was, and not that far away. It was called Manhattan. From my house, an hour on the bus and subway would get you there. As a young teen, I began to explore it. Eventually, in my early twenties, I came to live there, through a combination of stubborn perseverance and destiny.

THE MIX OF PEOPLE

For me, one of Manhattan’s chief lures–the one people live elsewhere to avoid–is its rich mix of people. The first time I picked up the elder of my local grandchildren at the public school she had entered that week as a kindergartner, my eyes welled with tears when her class marched out into the schoolyard. Not only were the African-American, Caucasian, and Asian races just about equally represented, the blending of these groups that has occurred was evident in their looks, which often suggested that the human race was being gloriously renewed, even reinvented.

Several grades later, I asked this granddaughter who, in her class of 28 or so, spoke a language other than English at home. She named seven, citing the language they used with their parents and siblings–Russian, Spanish, Chinese, French, modern Hebrew, and Korean among them–and reminding me that she didn’t know about everyone in the class, only her friends.

Despite the poverty of the school–the middle-income parents willingly provided the most basic school supplies for the less fortunate children as well as their own–it was rich in its pupils, in some very savvy, dynamic, and empathic teachers, and in the steady acting out of its motto: “One family under the sun.”

A MUSEUM

Upon hearing the official announcement that our country had gone to war with Iraq, I figured that a third-floor window–the highest I had immediate access to at the moment I heard the news–was too low for a successful death leap, and anyway suicide was a romantic, self-indulgent notion for someone in my relatively safe circumstances. On the other hand, I couldn’t pretend that nothing world-shaking had happened and get on with my usual writing, housekeeping, grandmothering, and exercising at the gym. (George Bush’s suggestion of going shopping–a favorite of his since the 9/11 catastrophe–was patently obscene.)

So the next morning I went to the Metropolitan Museum. I walked to the Met through Central Park, which was as verdant as ever, a comfort in itself–trees are rarely affected by remote human disaster–and looked at some of my favorite pictures. On the walk home, I felt amazingly ready to face reality with the equanimity necessary to attempt constructive action. The question of whether or not my subsequent attempts at “constructive action” have done anything to better the state of the world remains moot.

CENTRAL PARK

Central Park is my backyard, half a block away from where I live. It is replete with diversions, as any tourist guide will tell you. A native New Yorker (admittedly bridge-and-tunnel in my first youth), I long ago absorbed (and today regularly revisit) the highlights the guidebooks emphasize–among them the Shakespeare Garden, free theater at the Delacorte, rowing on the lake, the zoo, and the carousel–and appreciate many smaller charms. Do you know the Whispering Bench?

Most subtle and important: the park is a solace. Over the years, running, jogging, or just walking on the sooty pedestrian track that circles the reservoir, you come to see that seasons go on but their route is cyclical, while your life is linear. Why noticing that it’s “autumn again” or “another spring” is a comfort, I can’t say exactly, but it seems to put things in perspective. Perhaps the promise of eternal renewal allows you to imagine that your present difficulties will be resolved or, if not, be absorbed tolerably into your life’s journey, even enrich it.

OTHER MUSEUMS, TOO

Bordering the park, on both Fifth Avenue and Central Park West, are a seemingly infinite number of museums you can drop into for a short impromptu visit when you’ve had enough of outdoor delight and consolation. The forbidding admission prices posted at the biggies–the Met and the American Museum of Natural History, for instance–are easily avoided if you can’t afford them or think the tariff is a bit steep unless you plan an absurdly long visit. Read the deliberately fine print on the signs at the ticket desk. Turns out those high charges are only “suggested” (because of the government support these institutions receive). You have to pay something, but a penny will do. I usually give a dollar for each person in my party. If you already know this, tell someone else on the ticket line, preferably someone who does not look wealthy. Museums in general have free hours or even days, so arrange your schedule accordingly. I am particularly fond of the fact that the Jewish Museum has reconciled itself to staying open on Saturday by charging no fee on the Sabbath, when an observant Jew should not be handling money, let alone seeking secular bustle and artistic intoxication instead of the quiet spiritual contemplation prescribed for the day on which Yahweh rested.

When you live right near this host of museums, visiting one needn’t be a major excursion. It can be a casual affair, like a short call on a familiar and particularly fascinating neighbor. When my children were very young, I would tell them that we could stay half an hour, tops, at the Met on these brief visits, look at a few pictures or sculptures or other objects, and buy one postcard. (The limit to the single card increases its value to the child, and choosing one from many refines the youngster’s awareness of his or her individual taste. Then we had to go, I’d say, but we would come back soon. As we did. This tactic kept their appetite sharp until they were ready for longer sojourns. One of my grandchildren, though, preferred a long look around even at a tender age. To this day, she enjoys wandering through gallery after gallery–“getting hopelessly lost,” as she gleefully puts it–in the process discovering dozens of things that attract her–sometimes for unfathomable reasons (until she explains them). These explanations have really opened my eyes.

OFFBEAT SHOPS

This is getting to be less and less true, alas, as mall-dom descends upon us–Starbucks, the Gap, Duane-Reade, and that ubiquitous golden-arched burger chain I prefer not to name–but New York has traditionally been rife with small, weirdly irresistible places. Chief among them have been dark, disorganized little shops containing almost nothing you’d want except for that one fabulous item–like the charming French dessert plates illustrating the fables of La Fontaine that I once found half-hidden in the dusty clutter.

Just what I needed! My toddler son, you see, invariably announced his finishing the contents of a small dish by slinging the plate joyously into the air, from which position it crashed to the floor and was instantly reduced to smithereens. No amount of reasoning with him could eradicate the habit. He had destroyed just about all of our smaller dishes in this way–and I snobbishly refused to have my children dining from plastic tableware–when, in an obscure shop in our neighborhood, I found over a dozen of those fable plates, every one depicting a different tale, which I happily acquired for 75 cents each. When, years later, I saw what they cost in a Paris flea market, I realized I was in possession of a valuable treasure. Today, I sometimes see them in museums.

To my credit, I continued to use the plates daily, though I admit I stopped putting them in the dishwasher because they are faience, which chips easily under mechanical duress. My son, for no reason I could discern, treated them with the utmost gentleness from the get-go. Perhaps he was fascinated by the sight of animals in clothes, at least half of them up to no good.

THE LIBRARIES

These days New York’s public libraries have deteriorated significantly from the era of my youth, when they seemed to me outposts of Heaven. It’s not just that the continuing automation of the system, albeit useful and necessary, has eroded some of their charm. The real problem can for the most part be laid at the feet of our government, which supports culture and children’s needs so poorly.

The libraries are grievously understaffed and some of the existing low-level aides seem subliterate, while the children’s rooms are, faute de mieux, used by the working poor as free, reasonably safe after-school havens for their offspring, with the librarian–if one is on hand–reduced to keeping order amongst the rowdier kids. This task is not necessarily well matched to a librarian’s skill set. Besides, how could a second-grader be expected to keep still–physically and vocally–for two to three hours after a day exercising similar restraint at school?

Despite its decline, I love the public library. I love the democratic idea behind it of making books available to everyone, flush and broke alike. I like being in the presence of thousands of volumes, each harboring a unique message to enhance or alter my mind, my world. I admire these bastions of culture bravely holding out in what may well be a losing battle.

I have (had, as we shall see) three favorite Manhattan libraries. When it comes to the system’s main site at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street–the old building with its wide outside staircase on which readers and office workers picnic in warm weather, guarded by the life-size marble lions, Patience and Fortitude–it’s the Rose Main Reading Room that’s synonymous with library to me. I’ve used it since I was in high school. Its atmosphere seems conducive to research: the prevailing hush, broken only by whispers; the lavish days-of-yore use of wood; the long oak tables where, at evenly spaced intervals, the heads of scholars, students, and the simply curious bend over the books they hope will reveal the secrets they want to penetrate, both faces and texts illuminated by lamps with glowing green glass shades.

Then there’s the Jefferson Market branch in Greenwich Village, housed in a venerable, striking, and peculiar edifice converted into a library in 1967. This was the one I took my children to when they were little, and not just because it was near our home at the time.

A landmark building, it had been designed in the Victorian era by Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux. Vaguely inspired by Gothic architecture, it boasted an extravagance of turrets, and an asymmetrically placed, extra-tall clock-and-bell tower perfect for sequestering princesses who need some punishment or at least a time-out. Since the Victorian aesthetic prevails–for instance, in the imposing palette of russet, ivory, and black of the exterior’s construction materials and the general air of Too Much–it makes subscribers to the Bauhaus style wince. Still, it has a presence that was greatly admired in its own day and encourages fantasy in ours.

Originally, the place was used as a courthouse, When it eventually fell into terminal disuse and decay, neighborhood denizens saved it from being razed, and its interior was converted to use as a library by Giorgio Cavaglieri, who left many of its original features intact.

My children adored its outward, medieval-castle look and, especially, its interior, complete with high stained-glass windows, winding staircases, exposed-brick walls with concave niches, and stone portraits and flowers like the ornaments that beguiled them at The Cloisters. The collection and librarians in the children’s room were very good, but it was the place itself that mattered most.

My third favorite was the Donnell Library Center (everyone called it, simply, The Donnell), which closed as the first part of an overall transformation of the NYPL system–on September 1, 2008. The transformers’ declared purpose is to “expand and reshape [the Library’s] services as it moves forward in an era of changing use and information needs.” Statements like this, which include expressions like “new state-of-the-art facilities,” make me very nervous. The Donnell, we’re informed, will emerge as “a new library that opens in 2011 as part of a development project with Orient Express Hotels.” Very nervous indeed.

In memoriam: The Donnell, as I knew it, had the most agreeable children’s section imaginable. From its entrance, you turned left to the room for books that circulated, right to the room holding the books that stayed put for research–or simply for reading in situ on a rainy afternoon. The premises were neither too large nor too formal to intimidate young readers; they exuded an air of comfort. Small exhibitions, some changing, some seemingly permanent, provided a charming addendum to the low book-crammed shelves. Years ago, a Laura Ingalls Wilder display made me weep when I looked at the manuscript of one of the Little House books–handwritten on a humble yellow legal pad. And then there was the vitrine of Mary Poppins artifacts (like the green umbrella with its parrot-head handle) and, most celebrated of all, the glass case harboring the original plush animals, battered by play and love, that once belonged to a boy called Christopher Robin and inspired his father, A.A. Milne, to write Winnie-the-Pooh.

On my last, child-accompanied visits to the Donnell, I encountered a young librarian named Rebecca. As she got to know my grade-school companions, she gently elicited from them the kind of stories they liked to read, then volunteered (but carefully did not impose) her suggestions of books that might appeal to them. It seemed as if she had read–and relished–every volume in the place. And she obviously recognized each of the children she helped as a unique personality, worthy of the utmost respect. I hope the Library doesn’t misplace her in its reshufflings. She is what I’d call state-of-the-art.

OTHER PARKS

The park I know best besides Central Park is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, adjacent to the wonderful Brooklyn Museum, in the borough–must we call it outer?–in which I grew up. Wandering aimlessly through the Garden is one of the best ways to experience it, but the highlights are marvels in and of themselves.

The most magical for me has always been the cherry blossoms, the fragility of their petals auguring the brevity of their life–a week or two at most, even without an unlucky day of high wind or pelting rain. Many of the trees are planted in two allées, each consisting of a pair of parallel rows, and this arrangement is the most breathtaking. But all of the groupings, others more relaxed and sinuous–some in the vicinity of the allés, others scattered through the park–contain different breeds of cherry, so that the various sections bud, flower, and spill their petals to the ground at different times. The overall effect of the Garden’s cherry trees is an example of nature simultaneously tamed and relaxed, blossoming and withering, providing lessons in both beauty and life itself.

If you lie on your back, looking up at the blossoms against the blue sky, the picture is unearthly. You can lose all sense of the pedestrian world we walk in as your mind succumbs to the illusion that the heavens are flowering. When the sun is in the right position, the dull reddish-brown of the cherry-tree bark flames into a glowing reddish copper that seems to shout, “Glory, glory, glory!”

One of my most vivid memories of myself as a child, is sitting on the grass beneath the trees, playing with my Japanese paper dolls, who had clothes folded so that each costume had a front and a back. You slipped the doll into it sideways. I don’t recall making up elaborate stories for these dolls, though they obviously constituted a family. The human figures and their two-sided outfits provided complete joy on their own.

Though it can fell the allergic, the Cranford Rose Garden demonstrates the skill of breeders who were convinced that the ancient five-petaled rose, almost always pink or white, was a paltry thing compared to what could be engineered. Their results will be considered miracles by some, overkill by others. The Garden cultivates 1200 different types of rose and leaves it to the spectator to decide if the display is a tribute to human ingenuity or to God’s imagination.

The Garden’s formidable website obligingly charts the development of the cherries in the spring and that of the roses as summer approaches and flourishes. This information can be useful at times; at others, more than you need to know. There’s a lot to be said for coming upon delight serendipitously.

The hot house (an enormous glass conservatory now retreaded as the Palm House, a highfalutin site for upscale social events) was filled with exotic plants organized according to their various native climes, each section accorded its appropriate weather–dry, humid, extra hot–which gave the human visitor a frisson as he passed from one room to the next. Each section contained species certain to leave the spectator slack-jawed; some didn’t even look like plants. The desert department was formidable, a venue where the vegetation was often equipped with its own defensive weaponry and cacti masqueraded as stones.

Still, what I relished most about my childhood visits to the hot house with my mother was her gently running her finger along the central ribs of the Sensitive Plant’s delicate foliage so the leaflets would fold up in response (and not open for over an hour–we’d go back and look). This was strictly forbidden–ominous signs were prominently posted to that effect–but she surreptitiously did it anyway and I delighted in her daring. Now that I think of it, her only criminal tendencies were horticultural. On another visit to the Garden she helped herself to a tiny clipping of an unusual plant, deftly stowed it away in her handbag, and cosseted it at home until she had raised it to a sumptuous adulthood, in every way equal to, even surpassing, what the Garden had achieved.

What was once the hot house is still flanked on either side by long rectangular water lily pools in which large koi (ornamental carp) swim, rising from a murky depth to an inch below the surface to flaunt their true colors: vermilion; white with irregular vermilion spots, an occasional slate grey. Floating imperturbably on the surface of the pools were the flat green lily pads, the flowers springing up from them in their incandescent hues: fairytale periwinkle; show-offy fuchsia; pure, calm cream; tender violet; severe white; frivolous pink; insistently cheery yellow. My mother and I, along with any other members of our excursion, would make a game of choosing her or his favorite–only after prolonged examination, deliberation, and some argument since the rules of our game had it that no single color could be claimed by more than one person. Oh, the irony of conflict in Eden!

Usually our visits concluded with the Japanese Garden, a picturesque evocation of Eastern horticulture oddly situated–and thriving–smack in the heart of Brooklyn. People often held their weddings there. The site was sheltered by an undulating wall of fragile wooden palings, allowing the bridal party and its guests a strange kind of semi-privacy. There were openings at intervals, for folks without marriage on their minds to view the stylized landscape, so one could easily peek at the nuptials, and we certainly did. The most ravishing bridal pairs were Japanese-Americans, wearing traditional Japanese dress, for whom the landscape seemed created–almost like a set design–no matter how far they were, geographically, from their ancestors.

THE SUBWAY

Everything bad you hear about New York City’s subway system is true. The trains don’t go where they’re supposed to go, especially on weekends, or indicate if they’re planning to go there expresswise or locally. Info regarding the current weekend, holiday, or “just because” route indicated on the slew of posters slapped up on the tile walls of a given station is, more often than not, beyond comprehension, or just dead wrong. Once, on the subway platform, as a conductor leaned out the window of his stopped train with an air of perpetual resignation, I asked him where his train was going next. He replied mournfully that he had no idea, that he was waiting for instructions.

All this, we’ve been told for several years now, is due to the MTA’s tearing up many a station and miles of track, presumably for repair work, which is proceeding at a pace that would make a snail look speedy. The system’s loudspeaker announcements about matters such as how to get, say, from the Bronx to Brighton Beach on a Saturday–seemingly via an improvised route involving three different trains and an emergency bus shuttle at the end–are indecipherable. In hot weather the stations make terrific substitute saunas, but getting naked is forbidden along with a long list of other infractions, no doubt derived from actual passenger behavior. Have I forgotten to say that the system is filthy and rat-infested?

Nevertheless, it’s a genuine city thrill to be on board the D train as it crawls over the Manhattan Bridge at twilight, the city’s nightlights beginning to twinkle, or hurtles without a stop (stand with your kids in the first car for the full experience) from 59th to 125th streets. Another small but potent subway delight: If you’re changing from the 1 train to the A to get to The Cloisters, the 168th Street station, where you make the switch, has you traverse a little underground bridge where the aforementioned kids, their grown-ups nervously making sure they don’t pitch over the railing, can look down at the tops of the trains as they rush along the gleaming tracks.

Lovers of minor beauties of bygone days relish the old mosaics set into the walls of the stations. (The new ones are a nice idea but they don’t hold a candle to the old examples in subtlety of color or design.)

And as for practicality, the subway is still the fastest, cheapest way to get you anywhere in town. Even the mayor claims to use it.

OVER THE WATER

New York is a water city. Have you walked over the Brooklyn Bridge? A grandchild and I do it every summer. I read aloud to her as we travel by subway from uptown Manhattan to Brooklyn; then we walk over the bridge back to Manhattan in order to face its skyline as we stroll. As everyone knows, the architecture of this bridge is magnificent–at once heroic and harmonious–but it is most so when you absorb it as you progress through it. My companion and I stop at a bench at the (clearly marked) midpoint to rest, consume our homemade picnic lunch, and call her mother and a couple of other parties who might care–to tell them we are sitting exactly-in-the-middle-of-the-Brooklyn-Bridge.

Last summer, as usual, all the familiar icons hove into view as we walked, looking far and wide about us, but we could hardly make them out; shrouded as they were in a dense fog.

“I’m sorry,” I said to my young companion. “We can come again on a brighter day.”

“Oh, no, don’t mind,” she replied, her eyes riveted on the faintest ghost, intermittently invisible, of the Statue of Liberty. “It’s better this way.”

Two summers ago I took the same child’s younger sister to the New York branch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, ensconced at Battery Park in the old U.S. Custom House, a formidable Beaux-Arts building. There terrific Native American exhibitions are complemented by the building’s luxurious interior, which includes venerable marble; voluptuous brass banisters snaking over twin spiral staircases, and, at its heart, an enormous oval rotunda topped, high above, by a concave oval skylight of clear glass.

The museum makes a marvelous excursion. Our own outing also got a splendid coda when I realized we were right near the Staten Island Ferry.

“Want to take a quick ferry ride before we go home?” I asked the child.

“Sure!”

It had been raining, but she had her hooded slicker on and I had an umbrella. By the time we boarded the ferry, though, we were in the middle of a lashing storm.

“Want to go out on the deck?” I asked recklessly, certain she’d be too timid.

“Sure!”

And so we did. We were the only passengers who dared confront the storm. I closed my umbrella, which was completely useless against the stinging sheets of rain and fierce winds blowing every which way, kept a very firm grip on the child, who was as slender and light as a fairy, and looked at her drenched cheeks, pink from the slap of the water, and those gray-blue eyes, bright with the glee of serendipitous adventure.

Another ferry takes you to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, where, among the compelling displays that pull no punches about the émigré’s lives, you can find my father’s name listed amongst the thousands who entered America there: “William S. Bernstein, Russian (Hebrew)”–Jews were not fully recognized as Russian citizens. He was twelve years old when he arrived. At home he spoke Yiddish. In New York he got a job driving a laundry truck. A decade later he entered Cornell University and went on to become a physician. The American dream, you might say. In his late forties, he started learning Russian, planning to use it one day when he visited his birthplace. He died before he achieved that, but he was inordinately proud of his last linguistic accomplishment: reading all of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Russian–very, very slowly.

EVERYTHING ELSE

I haven’t said a word about my town’s theaters, music, food, sports facilities (for doing, learning, and viewing the pros), people-watching, the “ethnic” neighborhoods, and day trips (which open a world of additional venues). Space simply does not permit. Anyway, the reader may have an entirely different New York, so I leave the rest to her or his imagination, choices, and, I hope, pen–and conclude with my husband’s claim that he, too, loved living in New York. I asked him why. He named the kinds of things I’ve already mentioned.

“But you rarely do any of them,” I said, baffled.

“I know,” he replied, “but I love knowing they’re there.”

© 2009 Tobi Tobias

Comments

  1. Daria Wheatley says:

    What amazes me about masses of cherry blossoms is how they seem to absorb sound.

  2. a fabulous synopsis of life in the Big NYc city!!
    so much so true . . . and that i can relate to. . . .
    i only spent 2 weeks in NYc . . . staying in Brooklyn . . . and commuting all day, every day/night to Manhattan and beyond. . . . yes did walk the amazing Brooklyn bridge. . . . some of my fave picks — wondrous galleries, museums . . . .
    could easily live there too.
    thanx for your rave . . .
    Corrie,
    Sydney, Australia

  3. Gail O'Donnell says:

    I lived in NYC for 14 years and then have moved to a number of interesting and wonderful places. Your column is exactly why I’m considering coming back now that my daughter is raised (and she lives there). Thanks. Gail O’Donnell

  4. Sarah Levine Simon says:

    Enjoyed this. Even though I’m from Pittsburgh. I came to NYC in the 60s as a Juilliard student and the friends I made back then were from Brooklyn, transplanted to Manhattan; and are still my close friends today. My dancer daughter Abigail Simon was born and raised in NYC . She is dancing with the Joffrey and likes it but NYC is in her blood.

  5. This is a lovely poem to the city, and I share so many of the same feelings you do…and they could form the basis of my own essay on “Why I Love to Visit NYC As Often As Possible Even Though I No Longer Can Imagine Living There.” In the end, the fact that the music world (I can’t speak on other art forms) has become more decentralized (i.e., that NY is just one more provincial outpost among many, no more and no less important than some others) has led more and more folks like me to realize that it’s easier to live on modest means as an artist in other parts of America.
    The parts of your essay I liked the best were those about NYC as the city of water. The rivers and the beaches (the latter underrated by so many Manhattanites) have such a capacity to bring some sanity into a city-dweller’s life. And of course, the ridiculous abundance of cultural offerings cannot be disputed.
    The idea, however, that New York is somehow more culturally diverse and tolerant than the rest of America is becoming less and less true. I live in Columbia SC, and as I dropped my child off at day care this morning, I said hello to his classmates who include some of Indian, Chinese, African-American, and Jamaican backgrounds. I live in a friendly neighborhood that is similarly diverse. In fact, in many mid-size American cities today, I find a greater diversity within the middle class and less economic tension between ethnic groups than I did in the years living in NYC 1983-2000. The point is that it is just plain easier to attain middle-class lifestyle, whatever you want to call it, in places other than NYC. This is a sad fact, but undeniable.
    But NYC will always continue to feel like home for me. Still, for those in the arts, America needs you in places other than the big urban centers! Make your mark in the Big Apple, but then consider bringing your gifts to other places that need them more and might even appreciate them more noticeably! Fear not, New Yorkers: there is life beyond the Hudson.

  6. John Wyszniewski says:

    Thank you, Tobi, for this wonderful essay on New York City. It reaffirms my belief that this city is not only a great place to live, but a unique and magical place to raise a family.

  7. jeffery mcnary says:

    indeed there’s a reason they call it new york, new yors, yes?

  8. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thank you TT for reminding me with such eloquence of my home town. I grew up in the Village, not East, not West, but Greenwich thanks very much, the highly privileged if chronically broke daughter of painter and sculptor Allen Ullman, goddaughter of Margaret Mead. The principle “denizen” who saved the Jefferson Market Court House was Margot Gayle, mother of my best friend in the first grade; I played a small part as well, alphebetizing index cards I believe! The Staten Island Ferry was a frequent special treat; the Metropolitan Museum, overtly free in those days, was where I bonded with my father on Sunday afternoons. My favorite birthday party took place in Central Park, a picnic with my best friends when I was about ten. Now I live in another “water city”–Portland, Oregon, not a city at all when I moved here in 1964, but now it has a skyline, a resident ballet company, and over a hundred art galleries. A park designed by Olmsted is where I took my daughter to feed the “duckies” years ago–it’s a good place to live and to raise children and to make art. But New York will always be the place where I feel most alive–it has an energy uniquely its own, a city of infinite possibilities, of grit and risk. See you soon!

  9. But this is a book! I mean, I can see the pictures. I can imagine myself turning the pages. It has just the right depth and density.
    I loved best your naming the soothing side of boredom, and the image of the writer’s mother as a plant pincher.
    When standing beneath those cherry blossoms, I feel as if I’m inside one of those pink Hostess cupcakes from the 1970s. Do they still exist?

  10. Your description of living in NY was like a visit through the city. I have never been there, maybe one day I will be able to see this beautiful city. Isn’t it wonderful we have the privilege to make choices in our life. To be able to choose where we want to live.
    Good luck to you, hope you always make happy choices.

  11. Mette-Ida Kirk says:

    Thanks so much for your article.
    So full of love and adventure. I liked every part of it, but the one about your father was especially touching.
    The way you talk about the blending of the races at kindergarten and school – and Rebecca, the young librarian at the Donnell – all provide a hope for the future.

  12. I’m glad you enjoyed the essay, Mette-Ida. Like many a writer, I always imagine only half a dozen people read what I write, even if the material is “my letter to the world.” The response to “Why I Live in New York” has been overwhelming, and I am grateful to every one of the readers who has written now that SEEING THINGS has a Comments section. An essay devoted entirely to my father, “Dr. Bill: Personal Indulgences No. 15,” is slated for posting at the end of September. –tt

  13. Allen Dickstein says:

    My Personal Indulgences: I came to New York in November, 1964 and immediately fell in love with the pace and excitement of the city. I grew up in New Haven in a relatively poor and uneducated family and therefore had little exposure to culture except the exquisite campus of Yale University. Manhattan opened an incredible world of beauty and joy for me: the museums, Central Park and the reservoir, Riverside Park, the theatre, dance and movement, a melting pot of different ethnicities and other joys like the different areas of the city, the majesty of the Brooklyn Bridge and the environs of Manhattan. But simpler things like one day walking on a block that I had traversed so many times and suddenly realizing that I had not previously noticed some interesting object on the building. I have always had a love affair with the city and feel so proud to be part of it. — Allen Dickstein

  14. Jean Paradise says:

    This is a fine article, and I want to add one piece of personal information. Way back in my reckless youth, I spent a month going daily to the Japanese Garden to read the Aeneid in Latin. Now this seems like a nutty enterprise, but it made perfect sense at the time.

  15. Catherine Turocy says:

    How beautiful! Loved the NYC article and sent the link to friends.

  16. Mindy Aloff says:

    This is a beautiful essay. Perhaps you can write a pendant to the section about the subways, though, when the drastic fare rises and cuts in service go into effect

  17. Christopher Caines says:

    What a beautiful piece! You must have been working on this forever.

  18. Bonnie Goh says:

    Great read. Thanks, Tobi.

  19. It’s a lovely essay, but, for many of us, more fiction than fact. As a native of Manhattan, I spent years fretting when I was away, conniving to return, & celebrating the day that I came home. And then, insidiously, a voice began to heckle me as I shoved my way off the subway or triple locked my door or experimented with headphones over ear plugs in a vain attempt to not hear neighbors’ competing cacophonies. “Aren’t we having fun!” it would murmur maliciously. “NY, NY, it’s a wonderful town!”
    And, eventually, I left. I miss much, but much of what I miss is the fictional NYC that may be fact for the fortunate, & that lights up your essay. I love the idea of it, & I’m glad that it truly exists for you.

  20. Sandra Hammond says:

    Thank you for this perfect preface for my upcoming trip to New York with my daughter and grandson. I read it with a grateful heart—for you and your wonderful prose and for all the things that are special to me about the city.

  21. New York is a city that, in this difficult, transitional time, greatly needs our abiding love. It is my birthplace and home. Although I have had quarrels with it, and though I find many places in the world ravishingly beautiful and gracious, I would miss this city’s abundant resources for the nourishing of mind and soul.
    You’ve mentioned many of these–the Met Museum, the embattled–but essential–library system, the rich mix of cultures, delightful outdoor events that bring people together. I want to support your gutsy tip of the hat to our public transportation system–not that it’s perfect or that the MTA should be praised. (Hell, no!) But, with reasonable efficiency and reliability, New York’s transit system helps millions negotiate this big city without the enormous bother, or the carbon footprint, of a car.
    I can grab my binoculars and camera and hop on the A and head for the wetlands and gardens of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Broad Channel, Queens, and suddenly I’m in another world. By the way, as quiet as it’s kept, it’s not dance or art that keeps me loyal to New York. It’s the birds!
    Were it not for the fact that our city is a major site along the East coast’s avian flyway, and home to an extraordinary range of bird species, I might have gone quite mad a long time ago!
    Thanks for your lovely essay, Tobi!

  22. Vie Steinmetz-Hentze says:

    Thanks, Tobi, for this wonderful piece about Manhattan. I have been in love with it, from my first stay, 1950-52, when I lived on West 64th Street. near Broadway. I kept coming back and my heart is still there.
    Thank you for expressing MY feelings in words.
    Vie from Copenhagen.

  23. I love NYC. I will not move there until my children are grown. Although we often visit all the great places you speak of, it is not a place to raise a family. I do have fond memories of Manhattan.

  24. Sally Hess says:

    Dear Tobi,
    What wonderful writing about MY (our) city! And about family and language…, and, and, and…
    Thank you,
    Sally

  25. Philip Thurston says:

    Dear Tobi,
    As a fellow New Yorker whose journey took him in the opposite direction from yours (raised on Morningside Heights, now living in Park Slope) I truly enjoy your writing about this town (in “Why I Live in New York, Personal Indulgences No. 13″). And, as someone who was part of NYCB for a short time, I love your dance writing. Thank you!
    Phil

  26. I have always been skeptical of the idea that New York is really a “great place to live” but over the years I have heard so many great stories that I may be planning a move in the near future. This essay just makes my decision that much easier. Thank you.
    Brandy

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