I’ve spent 24 years on the planet — all of them in New York. Which is to say, at the Smith-9th Street station on the F line, in place of sky, I see the looming trapezoidal cut-out where the Kentile Floors sign once stood. Opposite my childhood bedroom: a kitschy secondhand clothing store, previously home to two different iterations of dumpling shop. Everything here was once something else — and something else before that. Now, the clothing store has a “for sale” sign positioned against its front window.
In New York, this bizarre form of anachronistic vision holds a kind of prestige. The more you recall — the more multi-layered your mourning — the more local you’ve become. To call structures, incorrectly, by their former titles, is a badge of clout. To be jaded means you’ve made it here; you’re one of us.
On the contrary, though, it's all just well-packaged ennui. For all my bitterness, I often look at friends who have just arrived, college students, even tourists (don’t tell) and admire the shiny lacquer the city still maintains for them. So, under the guise of journalism, I set out to recover some small piece of that awe. On assignment, I spent a week returning to all my most beloved city locales in the hopes of reviving (or rather, discovering) some of that reverence.
In honor of my pseudo-tourist agenda, I began my expedition with a cliche: the Promenade. A stretch of paved walkway running along South Brooklyn’s waterfront, the Promenade connects the inlaid brick buildings of Dumbo and the more residential smattering of brownstones in Brooklyn Heights.
As a kid, I played soccer in a sprawling field in Red Hook, a post-industrial district just further down the waterfront, under the shadow of a towering defunct bread factory. On our way home, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we’d pass by the dead-end street that marks the beginning of the Promenade’s walkway. I’d clock the couples seated on clay-paved stoops, outside homes that smacked of tasteful wealth. At the time, I imagined I would own the third from the end (unaware, of course, of the limitations to a writer’s salary).
Even now, the neat rows of brownstones, lined up like cartons of refrigerated milk, maintain their allure for me. I still want a desk beneath a window overlooking the Promenade, and an expensive food processor, and a wide arching foyer, mostly because I like the sound of the word.
As I turn to leave, I think it’s funny how the Brooklyn and the Manhattan bridges run nearly parallel to one another. Stretching into the matte gray of early fall, they look like outstretched fingers.
At 16, when North and South Brooklyn still felt like separate worlds and no one had yet mourned the demise of the L train, my friends and I would venture on exuberant weekend journeys into Williamsburg to shop for thrifted clothing. We arrived home with canvas backpacks stuffed with floor-length dresses, all of which we would shear off at the thigh, leaving the hems rough and the skirts too short.
A full decade later, I still often find myself wandering wheeled racks stocked with color-separated secondhand T-shirts in Williamsburg’s cavernous Beacon’s Closet. And on this particular occasion, Ubering home beside paper bags heavy with vintage sweaters, I remind myself that South Brooklyn isn’t so far after all.
For years, even following the dawn of cell phones, among the seven or so phone numbers I knew by heart were those of two separate car services, both of which I would dial while loitering outside concerts and warehouse parties when I had deemed it too late to take the subway. Naturally, in the ever-expanding tradition of urban nostalgia, the need to recite a cab number from memory was eclipsed by the emergence of companies like Uber — a technological advancement that brought great solace to my mother. After years of riding, late-night, in the conductor car of the G train (we had long been advised this was safest), we began to move ourselves differently.
Now, I click into an app to route myself home — can verify that whatever vehicle I've summoned is, in fact, taking me to my destination. I can share my ETA (both a blessing and a curse for those of us who, like me, habitually claim we're "en route!" while still pantsless, lying on our bedroom floors). I can dial 911, or leaf through a full toolkit of emergency services arranged neatly on-screen, each in service of my safety. All of this, magically, happens within the palm of my hand.
It’s funny, now, to think I was so unabashed for so long — so unfearful of so much city. It's funny that my own someday daughter will have a different, shinier version of city to raise her.
KINGS COUNTY IMPERIAL
New York dining is a delicate homage to the high and the low — to oysters arranged on ice and to halal smeared in white sauce, served brick-heavy in styrofoam containers. And there is no finer middle ground than Kings County Imperial.
On a fairly residential street, offset by the intrusion of the BQE, the place is Williamsburg’s take on classic dim sum, with wide rounded tables dotted with ceramic plates of steaming tofu. At 22, I lived blocks from here in a walk-up more appropriately sized for one medium-sized rodent than three full-sized women. That January, the pipes stopped emitting heat, and the landlord stopped taking our calls. My fingers had begun to change color.
On one particular afternoon, I stumbled in here, hoping my digits would regain their function. The inside was all dark wood and clouds of salty, viscous steam, and through the gray fog dancing in front of the windows, the BQE didn’t look so ugly after all.
Now, once again, I have the privilege of thawing here, having stubbornly determined to dress for the wrong season. While waiting for dumplings, I’m reminded how much I like the idea of a “din.” How the quiet drone of a place, stuffed with people going about their own private lives enclosed in a public realm, is part of the magic of eating out in New York. It’s one more layer of sensory pleasure.
UNION SQUARE FARMERS’ MARKET
As children, we were often schlepped to public parks or nature sanctuaries stationed just outside of city limits with the intention that we, native city kids, might look at trees. I remember associating pine trees with the air freshener tags that hang in taxi cabs.
In New York, it can be difficult to associate anything with the place it came from. Naturally, I have seen more greens arranged on the humming, back-lit shelves of a supermarket than rooted in the ground. And thus, for practical reasons, I find the Union Square farmers’ market to be soothing. It provides some context.
But beyond the actual ethos, the air is thick with a kind of camaraderie. Overalls are worn both earnestly and ironically, and you’ll find heels and hiking boots in equal supply. Bags are stuffed with bouquets of eucalyptus, and flowering broccoli stalks, wedged between laptops and legal pads. It's delicate disarray.
In much the same way, there’s something so charmingly out of place about the presence of a bustling vegetable trade curling around the edges of Union Square Park, hemming the city’s most popular subway connection.
ELIZABETH STREET GARDEN
We tend to feel precious about the act of declaring any one thing our absolute, distinguished “favorite.” It’s a superlative we avoid for safety’s sake. The Elizabeth Street Garden is my favorite place in New York City.
There are few square feet in the Soho area spared from the onslaught of tourists marching down Broadway. But on Elizabeth Street, cloistered between an affordable housing complex and an old antique shop, the garden is populated, instead, by an infinitely affable cast of New York characters. You’ll encounter a rotating circle of aging natives, lamenting the neighborhood's former status as an affordable artist’s haven. A handful of local employees, plowing through salads, relishing their time away from their blue-lit screens. One of two volunteers, seated on a bench at the garden’s entrance, brandishing a petition drafted to prevent the city government from flattening the lot and filling the chasm with more high-rise housing. Often, I speak with a woman accompanied by a lizard — on a leash — named Billie (the lizard, to be clear).
Arriving now, the fall chill not yet present enough to stifle the greenery, I note the way Soho’s apartment buildings, the facade of a gym, a cataclysm of restaurants, arch directly over the garden. Flanked by commercial businesses on an otherwise unremarkable street, the garden is like a missing tooth, interrupting even rows of brick. It’s a well-kept secret, a happy accident. It’s a microcosmic window into the tenacity with which so many different people will hold onto the most essential pieces of their New York.
169 Bar is an establishment that has never made up its mind about itself. It’s a menagerie of ephemera from countless disparate eras and aesthetic sensibilities. Having now spent well over a century in this same piece of Chinatown real estate, the place boasts a leopard-clad pool table perpendicular to a high-rise bar with questionable raw oysters on offer. Across the room: red vinyl booths adorned in string lights, Mardis Gras beads, neon signs, and the occasional display of mounted taxidermy. Food can be ordered from the adjoining Chinese food restaurant, though on the bar menu, which is vaguely New Orleans-inspired, you’ll find a classic Po Boy, too. You’re best advised to opt for the beer-and-shot combo, as the bartender will likely take out his phone to look up instructions for anything else you might request.
I love it here — have always loved it here, have spent many a birthday drinking well whiskey by the pool table. I find it to be so lovably new and old at once — both timely and institutional. The stools lined up beside the formica bar are occupied, most often, with a slew of chatty, graying men (all of whom seem to know one another), a parade of NYU grads, and a gaggle of self-congratulating, C-list film directors.
Right now, I sit opposite the bar beneath what is likely a former carnival mirror, writing this down — borrowing literary details from the array of characters drawn to this entirely strange, dark hollow of the city. That same din — the hum of people moving about their discrete lives, their speech overlapping, rattled in with the clink of ice against ice — hangs gently in the air. This is what New York sounds like to me.
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