Ashley Spinks wrote recently about why she doesn’t like The City. For her “The City” is Washington, D.C. but she defines it more broadly and, for whatever it’s worth, people in my neck of the woods call Manhattan exactly that: The City. Residents of Joliet and Fullerton probably refer to Chicago and Los Angeles the same way. Ashley also acknowledges that city lovers invariably tell her that she hasn’t been to the right parts of the city or the right spots. She lives in the wrong suburb (or in a suburb at all). She takes the wrong train, she hasn’t been there long enough, she’s been there too long. Though I made those last few up, they fit right in. But Ashley missed something about these passionate city-dwellers that likely takes a passionate city-dweller to articulate: Most of them are snobs.
That’s good to know going in: most city-dwellers are snobs. I don’t mean that in the traditional sense: cultured folk looking down their noses at the uncultured, liberally defined. Though there are certainly plenty of those as well. City-dwellers are geography snobs. To those who value the city, every other part of it is the wrong part. To North Jersey, the Raritan Valley is the wilderness. To Jersey City or Hoboken off the PATH train, North Jersey is a wasteland. To New York, calling Jersey “the City” is an unparalleled blasphemy. My Rand McNally 5-Borough Map literally left off Staten Island. It has only four boroughs and I didn’t notice for six months. Why on earth would you live in Flatbush when trains from Washington Heights are so much better? What the hell is even in Washington Heights anyway? To Upper West Siders, the Upper East Side is a transitless wasteland. My brother-in-law lived in New York for two years before he set foot in Queens. When he agreed to come to our apartment for Thanksgiving he asked: “Do I need to bring my passport?” Yes. You won’t need it to cross the river, but you will for the trip you’ll be taking straight to hell.
So with all that said, I live and die by the outer boroughs for many of the same reasons about which Ashley writes. Manhattan below Central Park is a hodge-podge of extraordinarily expensive trendy restaurants, tourist traps, and chain stores that are identical to all the others but larger and more closely packed. That McDonald’s has three floors! The world’s most magnificent M&M store! In one episode of The Office, Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott visits New York and goes straight to Times Square: “There are great places to eat – We have Bubba Gump Shrimp, Red Lobster down there. You know – this is – this is the heart of civilization. Right here.” Every community has sterile parts. Main Street in my tiny home town is full of shops, restaurants, offices, and churches. Its main shopping center is adjacent to a gaudy chain gas station and packed with fast food, chain banks, chain groceries, and other generic corporate detritus.
The neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn feel smaller than one might think. There are bodegas and small grocery stores, shops and restaurants, Starbucks and Burger King. When we lived in Bay Ridge, my wife and I went to First Oasis until they stopped asking for my name or phone number when I ordered take out. They knew us by the order: two chicken shawarma platters with brown rice and baklava to split. They also knew that I walked to pick up the food and always got there early. When I walked in there would be hot tea waiting at the bar. Tony at Espresso Pizzeria knew us by name and knew that, when we got a margarita, I had won the argument and, when we got pepperoni, it was Taylor. Taylor goes to the same deli in Long Island City so often that, when they see her come in, they get her order ready and by the time it’s her turn at the counter, the food is already bagged and ready to go. I shop at a recently renovated Key Food and always go to the same register. The woman who works there in the morning knows that it’s because her register has the box of packaged chocolate coconut macaroons. She knows that I will always buy one and knows to leave it unbagged because I’ll have eaten it before I get out the door.
The outer boroughs – including Manhattan above 110th Street – feel less like a single city, massive and overwhelming, than like an assortment of towns. The neighborhoods really feel like neighborhoods. My hometown spreads its 4,721 people into 3.32 square miles. My current neighborhood fits those 4,721 people into roughly a tenth of the space – about 0.316 square miles. So, in that superficial way, it’s smaller, though it feels absurd to say so. But it isn’t absurd. There are fifteen grocery stores (that I can count and not including bodegas and corner stores) in the 3.32 square miles that, in Orange, supports only one. But there’s no reason to go to them all. I go to one and know which unusual items require a different trip. There are thirteen liquor stores in the same area; in Orange only one. I don’t go to all thirteen. I’ve set foot in only three – two with any regularity. There are four post offices, three of which I don’t require. We don’t whirl about through a chaotic city. We build a small town from the parts we can use.
Everyone who moves to New York – and probably most other cool cities – goes through a phase in which they attempt to convince everyone else to move there too. I passed from that phase several years ago. But what I will say is that there are two ways to live in a city. The first is to live in the whole thing; to embrace the 302.6 square miles and 8,622,698 people all at once and swim through it like a minnow. The second is to take only what you can and build from the noise a weird, disjointed, small town in which to live. I don’t operate under the delusion that I got to choose. My personality – anxious, intense, nervous in crowds – suggests that I’d live the first way and that the city would swallow me whole. But for some reason I didn’t – it didn’t. I don’t operate under the delusion that others always get to choose either, but it’s good to know that there are alternatives.