The infinite city

I’ve been thinking about cities lately, and about the impossibility of grasping their whole essence, the entirety of what they are. The “New York experience” is a myth, I think; it does not exist — unless by that we mean the sum total of the experiences of all of the city’s eight million residents, but that is an idea we can only imagine in the abstract, even as we fail to comprehend what that’s really like. This isn’t to say no one can ever understand each other — as a humanist and a fan of science I firmly believe that we have deep commonalities and profound connections with one another, that we must understand each other, or perish. Nevertheless, we are also all individuals, constrained by our circumstances, perceptions, and personal histories; and when we realize that, then the monolithic image of New York (or any other city, really) shatters into millions of fragments. There’s the glamorous playground of fashion models; the moneyed metropolis of CEOs; the nightmare dystopia of crime and police brutality; the antiseptic skyscrapers and “colorful” ethnic neighborhoods; the city of the stockbroker, the hustler, the immigrant, the new arrival, the born-and-raised, the single young artist, the family with three kids, the stay-at-homers and the restless wanderers, the privileged and the downtrodden, the hopeful and the jaded. An infinity of cities.

In his wonderful book The Colossus of New York, Colson Whitehead says this:

There are eight million naked cities in this naked city — they dispute and disagree. The New York City you live in is not my New York City; how could it be? This place multiplies when you’re not looking. We move over here, we move over there. Over a lifetime, that adds up to a lot of neighborhoods, the motley construction material of your jerry-built metropolis. Your favorite newsstands, restaurants, movie theaters, subway stations and barbershops are replaced by your next neighborhood’s favorites. It gets to be quite a sum. Before you know it, you have your own personal skyline.

Indeed. As much as the video shows above, it really only scratches the surface of the city, and barely overlaps with my own personal experience of New York; I can watch the clip and smile and say “That’s nice,” and then go out to enjoy the secret pleasures of my own private metropolis.

I wonder sometimes if New York is really like the cave in the swamp at Dagobah, or like Tolkien’s Lothlorien: a place that offers to you what you bring to it in the first place, good for good, love for love, evil for evil. “What’s in there?” asks Luke, apprehensively; “Only what you take with you,” answers Yoda. “There is … in this land no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself,” says Aragorn of Galadriel’s realm. Perhaps New York is a mirror, its returning gaze stripping you bare, showing you the truest reflection of your noblest dreams and most shameful weaknesses. Perhaps some people don’t like what they see.

Nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live here, you say? That’s your New York, bud. My New York is more fascinating than you can know.


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