Returning to New York

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There’s just something about New York. A buzz, a hustle, a palpable energy radiating from the people around you. They walk faster, talk louder, do everything with a sense of determined purpose. The tired stereotype suggests that New Yorkers are rude, but I’ve never found that. They’re just in a hurry, and don’t often slow down for your benefit. Or, for that matter, anybody else’s.

It’s a lifestyle I thought I wanted, forever ago. I worked for a big investment bank that had its headquarters in this city, and there was a sense that this was where it all happened. If you really wanted to get ahead, New York was where you did it. Had the stars aligned a little differently I could well have ended up there, chasing a dream in the Big Apple.

Of course, that’s not what happened. I went the other way, leaving the big money and bigger egos behind in search of something both more and less. I haven’t worn a suit in two years, and barring weddings or funerals, intend to keep it that way. There’s rarely a need to rush, and as the cellphone-clutching crowds streamed past while I waited for my dusty backpack to emerge from the bowels of JFK, I silently rejoiced in that fact.

Still, despite the pace, the noise and the madness, I was glad to be back. The graffiti-clad subway car banged and clattered its way noisily towards Manhattan, that famous skyline beckoning me like an old friend. As a visitor, I didn’t have to deal with the rush-hour trains or insane rental market, freezing winters or a cost of living that makes grown men cry and six figures a starting point. New York City, at my own pace and in my own time, as it should be.

Dessert

It helped that I was staying at a friend’s place while he was out of town. Matt’s one-bed walk-up in the East Village was the perfect base to explore from, and with a few local friends having forwarded me their idea of the things that I absolutely couldn’t miss, that was just what I’d planned to do.

Even though I’d seen many of the tourist attractions before and could scratch them off, the full list would have taken months to get through. With only a week in town, I wasn’t even going to attempt to hit all of the highlights – but I could definitely cherry-pick a few of them.

First stop: Smorgasburg.

Every Saturday during the warmer months, food trucks converge on Brooklyn’s East River Park to provide sustenance for those in the know. Conveniently, we’d arrived on Friday evening. Even more conveniently, the park was just one subway stop away on the other side of the river. I knew where I was going for lunch.

Lamb burger and lemonade, SmorgasburgChristine had whittled down the several dozen options to a few of her personal recommendations, and so it was that after much perusing and rumbling of stomachs, Lauren and I found ourselves sprawled out on the grass near the water.

With lamb burgers in one hand and a cup of lemonade in the other, the sun high in the sky above the Empire State Building, it was the perfect reintroduction to the city. One of us hadn’t particularly enjoyed her first visit to New York several years ago, but on a day like this, even she was struggling to remember why.

We took the long way home, a slow wander south past coffee shops and warehouses to the Williamsburg Bridge. The introduction of cheap city bikes earlier this year seems to have been well received by tourists and locals alike, and we saw several of both panting their way up from Manhattan in the afternoon heat. Those Citibikes are many things, but lightweight is not one of them.

Williamsburg Bridge

I found myself back in Williamsburg the following day, fortunate timing meaning that I could catch up with friends Dani and Jess who had just flown in from Berlin. A few spits of rain gave us the perfect excuse to camp out in a bar, emerging a few hours later to a glorious sunset over the river. If I had thought the skyline was impressive during the day, it was even more so at night – even with no tripod and an unsteady hand.

Ever since I heard about the High Line, a disused railway line that was being transformed into an mile-long elevated city park, I’d wanted to check it out. It seemed like it could be a textbook example of urban renewal done right and – to this untrained eye, at least – that’s just what it was.

We joined dozens of other small groups as they strolled above the traffic the following evening, the tree-lined walkway masking the noise without obscuring the view. The setting sun filtered through the leaves and reflected off nearby buildings. Locals sat reading books as the day cooled down, kids squealing as they played beside the gardens and sculptures. It was an idyllic scene, as far from ‘typical’ New York as you could expect.

View from the High Line

And that, I think, is why I like the place. There isn’t really a typical New York, any more than there’s a typical any other large city. Sure, there are suits rushing around in Midtown, hipsters crouched over Macbooks in Williamsburg and cops eating donuts in patrol cars everywhere. These TV cliches, though, are just a tiny fraction of everyday life in this town, each neighbourhood – and its residents – different from the last.

On one of my last days in New York I headed out for a walk. I zig-zagged between the avenues, starting on 2nd and, every dozen blocks or so, skipping to another. The buildings, businesses and people changed every time, from locals in dive bars and neighbourhood restaurants in East Village, through tourists near the Empire State and office workers grabbing some lunch in Bryant Square.

Model sailing yachts

Onwards I wandered, eventually ending up under a tree in Central Park near a young family with an excitable puppy and a couple doing yoga. Finally rousing myself from my book (and farewelling the puppy) a while later, I continued along random trails, past plodding horses and their heavy carriages, alongside portrait painters of variable skill and a group of young guys attracting a crowd with their acrobatics, until I rounded Conservatory Water where kids were sailing sailing model yachts and exited the park into the old money of the Upper East Side.

I walked a couple of blocks with a smile on my face, past top-hatted doormen and well-dressed women pushing baby strollers worth more than everything I own. Descending into the subway I passed a young guy with dreadlocks, a guitar and a great singing voice, and dropped a couple of bucks into his case before boarding the train.

New York. As diverse as they come, and on a gorgeous summer’s day like that, one of the best cities in the world. I may not want to live there any more… but I sure as hell still love to visit.

4 Responses to “Returning to New York

  • Yay so glad you had such a good time! It’s definitely a tough place to live, but I swear for how difficult and expensive and stressful it can be–we get paid back in dividends of great food, brilliant people and incredible experiences. Plus–everyone always comes to visit!!!

    • Yeah, it’s a hell of a city… I do keep one eye on the house-sit options whenever they come up for NYC, which is approximately never. 😉 Thanks again for all your great recommendations!

  • these are some great off the track choices – I love the idea of cycling around the city and the views whilst eating burgers! great article 🙂

    • Thanks Rebecca! NYC absolutely remains one of my favourite big cities on the planet – I wasn’t sure if I’d still feel that way, but it took all of about half an hour to confirm that I did. 😉

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