The pizza was soft, charred and mouthwatering, Times Square was literally and figuratively electric (even in a Polar Vortex), and Twelfth Night on Broadway was paradigm-shifting.
But for me, the most striking thing about New York City was all the signs that it’s been a home to a lot of people for a really, really long time. And good stuff comes of that if you let it.
Let me give you some context for my Municipal Oldness Barometer. As far as civic lifespans go, my hometown of Calgary (est. 1875) is still at pulling on pigtails and hiding peas under its mashed potatoes. In plenty of ways, that’s a good thing: our sewage system is modern, downtown architecture is shiny and contemporary, and it’s hit an exciting new stride in the area of culture in the past decade or so.
New York City (est. 1624) is old. And that doesn’t just mean it has things that have been around awhile and are pretty neato—though that is true in spades. We drank in a pub older than Canada. A one-time watering hole to Abe Lincoln called McSorley’s Old Ale House where women weren’t permitted until 1970, sawdust litters the floor and only two beers are on the menu.
That oldness, the city’s temporal fortitude, means that a typical mid-19th Century Brownstone in Brooklyn has seen more human history than the oldest known structure in Calgary (a toolshed from 1888 or so).
It means walking into the New York Public Library, where countless people have walked before and stepping through a genuine work of art—not merely looking at photos of it online.
And speaking of art, it means being able to spend hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at hand tools used by pre-humans hundreds of thousands of years ago, or breathing on (I swear I didn’t touch) an actual bust of Caligula or self-portrait of Van Gogh. Art doesn’t have to be old to be good, but I think a city has to earn the right to be home to any sort of treasures of humanity. (Or, if we’re going to get technical, build a big enough museum and raid a conquered empire and take their stuff. But that’s a different argument for another cocktail.)
To me, these things all seemed as real as fairy tales or Star Wars before I experienced them for myself. I haven’t figured out just how to describe that feeling yet. That something I had only been able to read about in books or see in film is an actual, touchable thing. Maybe I read too much Harry Potter as a kid.
Grand Central Station, I learned, is a great place to catch your breath after walking into Grand Central Station. When I stepped out of the grungey subway thoroughfare and into the storied station proper, I thought I might need to use my travel insurance to scrape my jaw off the floor and reattach it. My heartrate quickened because it’s just that beautiful. From the huge stones that make up the walls, to the astrological symbols on the ceiling, I was overcome and finally understood what my mother had said a decade ago on her return from Rome about touring cathedrals.
I suppose it’s not just that New York City is old that had me in awe so many times. But its longevity is part of the reason it has so many beautiful buildings, priceless human artifacts, and why it’s teeming with millions of people creating delicious or marvellous things. And people have bothered to make sure these stories are being told. (It doesn’t hurt that everyone and their dachshund based their sitcom/rom-com in New York City.)
I’ll spare you any kind of metaphor here (because it would just sound like “with great power comes great responsibility”). What I’m trying to get at is the way New York City feels is something completely different from what I’m used to, and I’m lucky I got to stumble around it for a week.