NY Secret Sauce

Quarantine has a weird way of making you appreciate New York City. As friends and coworkers have moved away, either temporarily or permanently, I've been thinking about what makes this city special for me, having lived in a bunch of other cities across the world. So this is my entry into the "What makes NYC special" Discourse, only eight months after everyone else has posted their own quarantine-induced "What makes NYC special" posts.

I think what many people get wrong about this city is what it offers. Whether that's the museums, Central Park, the food, and so on, people tend to conceptualize of these things as what makes New York. And so when they look at all of NY's problems, such as egregious rent, terrible traffic, mediocre public transit, corrupt politics, etc, and run the cost-benefit analysis, they arrive at the "why would anyone want to live here" conclusion.

In my view, looking at the products NY produces for consumption vs the cost is a level-zero Bad Take. This is not to say NY is a better city than others, since that's most a subjective call. Rather, this is to say that if you analyze NY as only a consumer, you're missing out on a lot of what the city has to offer. Proust has this line about how the true voyage is to see the same place with a hundred different eyes, rather than seeing a hundred places with the same eyes. While this is pretentious in the "motivational poster" type of way, it still rings true for NY, more so than any other city I've lived in.

Thinking about the friends I've made since I first moved here in 2016: tech workers, fruit vendors, deli guys, journalists, creative types, refugees, activists, etc, New York makes it easy to find voices that resonate with yours. NY offers more than a single tribe to join, it offers the chance to create tribes of your own. The voices you find in NY aren't the same as your voice, but rather they complement it. These voices are met with shared serendipity, you meet them at a party, at a back of a bar, on the streets smoking shisha, anything. These voices are not the same as yours, nor will they ever be the same, but they harmonize into a greater whole. The shared struggles of NY gives a platform to resonate, the guy running the fruit stand during my commute is a fellow brother. It's the ultimate fellow strangers story, except it happens with a hundred people a hundred times a day, and, here's the key, you can pierce the veil of strangeness. The walls people put up in this city are largely performative, I rarely encounter someone who doesn't want to make a new friend.

Poll a hundred people about NY, most of them will have some opinions, even if they've never lived here. Poll a hundred people about other American cities, I guarantee you the opinions will not be as intense or as varied. The myths NY gives life to a particular drama about living here, a drama that contains an entire history of voices from a thousand different cultures. I would argue that NY's history and cultural experiences are not that different than the ones of other cities. NY's history is not objectively more interesting than the history of Urbana-Champaign. NY's arts and music experiences are not objectively better than the ones of Chicago. Honestly, any place where people make their own can be plumbed by infinite fascination.

But what NY offers you is the chance to participate, not just consume. People in this city constantly originate what they cannot finish. It is hard not to come into contact with interesting people here if you put in the effort. People in this city who resonate with you enhance the experience, similar to how it is one thing to listen to music alone, and a whole other to listen to music in a car with a friend. NY presents you with the chance to not only listen to a music of a thousand cultures, but the chance to synthesize and write your own.

The food scene certainly helps too.

Posted: 2021-01-18
Filed Under: field