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Notes from an author: Craig Taylor on New York

If a city could speak, what would it say? In the case of the Big Apple, it would be both a cry of mourning for times past and an invocation of wanting more.

By Craig Taylor
Published 26 Jul 2021, 11:53 BST, Updated 26 Jul 2021, 16:45 BST
Craig Taylor, author of New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time.

Craig Taylor, author of New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time.

Photograph by Mayita Mendez

When I moved to New York I was surprised by how many residents of the city told me they could teach me something. The lessons started on the day I arrived in 2014. I’m still receiving daily tips. During the time I spent researching my book, New Yorkers, I received a lot of practical New York lessons: how to recycle cans, how to steal a car, how to walk along the crowded sidewalks without bumping into anyone.

But often the lessons were more profound: how to be compassionate, how to live artfully, how to lead an uncompromising life. The advice may have been particular to this city, but a life lived well in New York was an accomplishment like no other.

Many of my interviewees told me I’d missed the real New York — by a couple years, or by a decade, or by several decades. “New York was better before,” they’d say, or “you should have known Avenue C when it was...” (with a waggle of his hand, noting its former notoriety). Or “you should have known Jackson Heights when it was...” (and then a thumbs-up). “This is good,” said one woman while gesturing to the noodles on her plate, “but Flushing isn’t what Flushing was.” And the place that made the good pupusas in the Bronx? Of course, that beloved hub for stuffed central American flatbreads was long gone by the time I arrived.

“It’s just a playground for the rich.” Nearly everyone I spoke to said something similar, like a forlorn chorus resounding across the boroughs, as if a nurse in Inwood and an old Irishman in the Rockaways made a pact to speak the same phrase with the same amount of venom. It’s just a playground for the rich — until you take the private elevator and step into the scented apartment and the smart man says, “You know, it’s not even that great a playground for us these days.”

The New Yorkers I spoke to thought their city was slipping into extinction. It was happening within their lifespans. They were witnessing deforestation of their shops, the loss of diverse shopkeepers. One mentioned “air people” — those you used to see walking the streets of Manhattan whose presence made you think: How do they earn enough money to be here? What do they live on, air?

Change in New York cut deep; it reshaped. Change pushed people further out.

“This stop,” one guy said in Forest Hills, “is where you get on the E at 5am and all the guys working in kitchens in Midtown are bundled up and sleeping.” And then I was told that change was the only continuing attribute: “Don’t listen to them. Part of loving New York is just mourning the hell out of it. The mourning is the love.” 

The people I talked to were also full of vigour, gall and drive. New Yorkers were often defined by their desire: I’m going to get it, or at least I’m going to try. It was a place so powerful I saw a man fresh from an upstate prison, asking for the city’s forgiveness: Let me back in, New York, let me return to who I was, let me experience more of you again.

For a while I lived near Grand Street, close enough to hear the rush of the Williamsburg Bridge. It was a building where neighbours were always accosting each other — at the front door, in the laundry room, in the hallways. In the autumn one year, my father visited from Canada. One afternoon, my downstairs neighbour negotiated her walking frame into the elevator just as my father and I were about to ascend to the ninth floor. She looked him over, inquired about his health, where he was from, what he did before he retired. When the elevator hit the fourth floor, she said, “I’ve had the nicest time talking with you. Would you mind if I carried on up to the ninth?” She did, and one day the next week, I heard the clink of her long necklace. “Craig,” she said, “I had the most wonderful time speaking to your father the other day. Now, tell me, is he single?”

It seemed fitting that a city that always had more to offer seemed so often to leave its people hungry for more. The word was repeated to me again and again: more. New York was — and is — inexhaustible. It’s a trait no pandemic will change. Whatever you want, there is always the possibility for more. That’s the lesson I learned. 

New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time, by Craig Taylor, is published by John Murray Press (£25). Taylor is also the author of Londoners, published by Granta Press.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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