When you’re alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go downtown
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown
The first time I remember hearing those words I knew I was a city girl. It was a credit card commercial that shows a young woman in the city seeing her life change before her eyes as she racks up credit card debt and acquires such beautiful things. Such a simple commercial that used a simply classic song made me long for such a magical life I knew was only possible in the city.
All my life I’ve lived somewhat on the fringe of New York. Growing up in Central Jersey, the city was convenient, but not necessary. I remember a few trips when I was a kid to see Broadway shows, but my family was never one to spend a lot of time in New York. I savored those little trips seeing the lights and that feeling like anything can happen.
It’s so cheesy but it’s so absolutely true that New York is a magical place. Being on the fringe, it both dulls and illuminates the sparkle. Ironically as I approached college I thought I wanted to be a California girl. I fell in love with the idea of living by the beach and getting açai bowls after yoga, but California respectfully declined. I wouldn’t quite say I settled for New York—I was and still am glad I made the choice—but at the time I thought maybe it wasn’t the dream.
Spending my college years even closer to the city but still maniacally on the fringe (just extend the subway into Yonkers—it’s not rocket science), I fell deeper and deeper in love. It was by no means an easy relationship. I got lost and angry with its “simple” grids. The cost of living never failed to shock me. The challenges of breaking into any industry in the city broke me more times than can remember.
But I found spots I loved. Enjoyed stretches of Central Park I walked between my internship and my boyfriend’s apartment. I ran into people I knew from this life or that one. I settled in and soon found myself at home in the city.
And yet when I finally moved in, I still found myself on the fringe of the New York that exists in mine and the rest of the world’s imagination. In one sense, I do live in the “Real” New York—older building, rich culture throughout the neighborhood, grit. But this also means that I live in the affordable New York, which is relative.
I love my neighborhood, and I love that it retains its authenticity against the squeaky clean WeWorkified Manhattan. But the reality is you don’t get that same “anything can happen” feeling when you walk up my street. I often walk up my street and wonder, “Am I going to be stabbed?” (It’s not that bad. I have never actually felt unsafe in my neighborhood, but I have seen some rather unsavory things that would make a stabbing less than shocking.)
Despite what my mother might tell you, when you walk through the parts of New York that you see in movies and on Sex and the City, you are far far less likely to be stabbed. And if you are stabbed, Lady Gaga’s doorman will probably call an ambulance for you.
All of this to say, the beautiful and dreamy and spectacular New York is real, but it is devastatingly unattainable to so many people. And thus, I have in some sense “made it” but I continue to live on the fringe of this magical city which presents a perplexing complex when faced with something like this pandemic.
The photos of “empty New York” do not tell the full story. My neighborhood has been all but bustling as usual. Every time I go out I see people loading off buses, heading to the subway, going about their days mask or not. I’m not saying they’re all ignoring any orders to stay inside, I’m saying these are the people who don’t have that privilege.
This is where they live—the last “affordable” neighborhoods in Manhattan, which also are the ones with the highest rates of infection on the island. Manhattan itself, the wealthiest of the boroughs, has the lowest infection rate. If the disparities weren’t plainly obvious, look at the ways the NYPD has already begun policing these different parts of the city.
I’m no New Yorker. I’m a proud Jersey Girl at heart, and it is the greatest privilege to be able to live and be trapped in this city, even on the fringe. But I can’t help but question what it means to be a part of the New York community when the divides are this disparate.
Now more than ever I wish I could forget all my troubles, forget all my cares and go downtown.