I grew up in Oklahoma, visiting my grandparents in New York City every summer from age 6 to 14. Then my grandma died, and my grandpa began spending most of his time in Arizona. I had two more brief visits in New York before he sold the house when I was 17. I had thought I would move to New York when I grew up, but I fell in love with Pittsburgh. I kept wanting to visit New York, but it kept not working out, until this summer. These are just a few of the things I noticed:
1. Now I’m used to living in a city. A big part of my fascination with New York was its urbanity: people everywhere, public transit, interesting buildings, diversity, excellent museums, exotic food, noise and color! It was so different from the sprawling prairie town where I lived most of my childhood, in which most buildings were built after 1950 and most people were white and middle-class. Now, I’ve lived for 20 years in neighborhoods that, while not as dense as Manhattan, pack quite a bit into a square mile. This crowded world is now my everyday home, so being able to see a lot of people–including rich and poor people, Africans and Asians, people speaking other languages, people who don’t buy all their clothes at Sears–is no longer a novelty. It’s the same for my six-year-old son, who is growing up in the city. I’m very happy about that . . . but it did make the trip less exciting than my childhood visits.
2. New York City is more civilized than it was in the 1980s. At first I thought it was just #1 changing my perception, but after a while I (and Daniel, who also had visited New York in the 1980s) became certain that the city overall is cleaner, the people are less rude, and the traffic is more orderly than before.
I mean, here’s how both of us remember the experience of trying to cross a Manhattan street as a pedestrian in the 1980s: You would stand near the corner, staring into a hopeless snarl of cars and taxis and trucks and buses and bikes and obnoxious squeegee-guys that crammed the intersection, all honking and yelling at each other. More and more people would accumulate at the corner, as others shoved past behind us, grumbling threateningly, until finally someone would snap, “Ahh, fuck it!” and stride recklessly into the traffic, immediately followed by a moose of pedestrians that would cause the vehicles to stop, albeit with honking and vivid descriptions of specific pedestrian body parts a driver wished to have removed from his path.
And here’s how it is now: You stand near the corner, watching the traffic pass in pretty much the manner indicated by the lights and signs, although a lot of vehicles are following too closely and making rather abrupt and tight turns and lane changes. There is no honking because of signs notifying drivers of a $350 fine for honking. When the walk signal comes on, you walk briskly into the street, and the cars generally stop for you, or if they’re trying to turn they may edge forward slowly, but the drivers are clearly allowing for your presence. Wow.
3. The subway is still the same, though! Many stations are identical to what I remember, except that the ads have been updated and I’m sure that’s not the same grime that was on the floor 21 years ago, just an identical amount of grime. Same distinctive subway stench. Same familiar subway routes. (Daniel said, “Well, they’re kind of hard to change, you know!”) Same trains, even! At least, many of the trains we rode were the exact same style I remember, with the yellow and orange seats and speckled tile floors–what are those indestructible surfaces?! We did also ride a few newer trains, with snazzy LED boards listing the upcoming stops.
4. You can, too, have supermarkets in the city! I am tired of reading in the newspapers that various grocers are unwilling to open stores in central Pittsburgh because they don’t like the sites available. Grocers make it work in Manhattan! For example, we visited a Trader Joe’s that is in the basement and sub-basement of a building; not only can you take an elevator between floors, but you can take an escalator while your shopping cart rides a special escalator–really cool! And that store’s 24 checkout lanes do not have to be arranged in a single row along the front of the store, with a separate line of customers for each one; instead, there is one line, and a clerk refers you to the next checker available.
[UPDATE: Two days after writing this article, I visited the new Target store in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. The store is all on one level, but the parking is underneath, and they have one of those shopping-cart escalators! Yay! While it’s not exactly a supermarket, this Target is selling quite a bit of fresh produce and other grocery items. East Liberty isn’t in the area grocers have been rejecting, though–the new Target is within a few blocks of a Giant Eagle supermarket, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods.]
5. The Statue of Liberty experience has changed quite a bit. You can’t go up to her crown just by deciding to stand in that line; you have to make a reservation (and there are only a few per day, so they sell out months in advance; we didn’t get to do this), show photo ID, and put everything but your camera into a locker with a fingerprint scanner. Just to go to Liberty Island, you have to walk through a metal detector and get your purse X-rayed; to go into the Statue pedestal (to see the museum and climb up to the base of the Statue), you have to do that again. It’s very tedious and feels paranoid. On the other hand, it is our one and only very special Statue of Liberty, 125 years old, so of course they want to protect it and be able to track down anyone who harms it. But still.
The other change is that the food sold on Liberty Island (and Ellis Island), which used to be unremarkable fast food at jacked-up prices, is now very tasty fast food with organic and whole-grain ingredients at prices that seem more reasonable given the quality. The cold drinks are served in real cups, and they say they recycle or compost 80% of garbage on the islands! (We weren’t asked to sort stuff as we discarded it, though; maybe they sort it behind the scenes?)
6. If there were any gaps in our New York City experience, we filled them on our last day in the city by eating Italian ices while sitting on the traffic island in the middle of Broadway at West 110 Street, with our feet resting on a huge grate under which subway trains were passing, sending up loud rattling noises and clouds of subway stench. Oh yeah! Earlier, we’d managed to work in two things I fondly remembered that my son was equally thrilled to experience:
- We watched break-dancers performing on the street. I have a vivid memory of walking in Manhattan with Grandma in about 1982, following exciting music of a style we’d never heard before, and finding some guys doing this bizarre robot-style dancing and spinning on their heads! Nobody in Oklahoma heard of break-dancing or rap for about two more years. Of course, both art forms are familiar to Nicholas, but it was exciting to see a live performance.
- We obtained something similar to a Coconut BANG! This was a slushy drink Grandma used to buy for me in pizzerias. I had described it to Nicholas when telling him about my childhood adventures in New York. When we started planning this trip, he announced confidently, “I will drink a Coconut BANG!” I explained that I wasn’t sure if it was still made, didn’t know if the places we used to get it were still in business, etc., but he was serenely determined. When visiting my grandparents’ old neighborhood, we walked into a restaurant, and there was a tank of slushy coconut-flavored beverage! It wasn’t the same brand, but it was basically the same. Yum.
7. It’s just a house. All these years, I nurtured memories of my grandparents’ delightful house and their neighborhood, Far Rockaway, which is the farthest southeast you can go without leaving New York City, on a skinny peninsula that’s not connected by land to the rest of Queens. We took the subway out there–it’s literally the end of the line. Well, Far Rockaway is pretty much like I remember, yet it’s not that great. Being near both the bay and the ocean is pleasant, but there are lots of mosquitoes! The architecture is a weird hodgepodge of large early-20th-century houses intermingled with standard 1950s Queens duplexes. It’s under the flightpath of Kennedy Airport, so every few minutes all outdoor conversation must cease as a plane roars by overhead. And the house has been stripped of exterior charm (unflattering paint job, shrubbery and grape arbor removed, ugly deck added), and the inside must be vastly changed . . . and I realized, what made that house special was Grandma, her presence and her style of decoration and all the great stuff she brought/allowed into the house; we can have that style of living in other old houses. That house was special because it was the only house like it I’d ever lived in. Far Rockaway was special because it was the only northeastern urban neighborhood I’d ever lived in. (Of course, by being there only in summer weather and not going to school there, I got only a portion of the real experience.) Now that I’ve lived in several old houses in various neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, and stayed with people in old houses in other cities, I know that other houses can be just as good, even better! It was a strange sort of relief to find that that house is now just a house, and Far Rockaway is a unique neighborhood but one I wouldn’t choose to live in now, and the desperate clinging sense of home that I used to feel for it is gone now that I feel at home in the place where I live. I guess it was good to wait 21 years to go back!