I took my first trip to the Statue of Liberty in May of 2011, a year after I moved to New York City. I’ve never been big on tourist traps — and New York City is full of them — but I felt an obligation to pay a visit to the lady in the harbor at least once.
Later that night I learned that at around the same time I was gazing up at her crown and torch, Seal Team Six was introducing Osama bin Laden to his virgins. As I listened to the news, an odd sensation came over me. “What a damn good day to be able to call yourself a New Yorker,” I thought. After witnessing a surge of cheering crowds at the foot of where the World Trade Center once stood, I went one step further: In that unique and cathartic moment, I realized I was home.
For every yarn Trump can spin about being at home amongst the working guys in the streets, there is a tale of a heartless mogul looking down from the giddy heights of his gold-leaf tower. Sure, Trump is eloquent in his eulogies for the Twin Towers; but it should not be forgotten that, as the city was trying to rebuild, he was energetically trashing their replacement.
At its best, New York is a real, functioning, unglamorous, unforgiving machine.
Is that New York? Not to me. Not even close. For a better account, I would recommend comedian Louis C. K., a New York City resident since 1989, who neatly summed up the place in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter:
In New York, everyone is so mixed together that there’s less of a feeling of class here. Outside some fancy office building, you see a CEO getting his cigarette lit by a cleaning lady. Everybody is dealing with the same s**t, everybody is on the subway elbow-to-elbow.
He’s right. At its best, New York is a real, functioning, unglamorous, unforgiving machine. And it’s all of that despite what the balance in your account says. It’s not Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It’s the hidden neighborhoods, tucked out of the reach of the sightseers. It’s the concrete canyons filled with natives hunkering down in hooded jackets and earplugs, not the European visitors searching for Mad Men or the Kardashians. New York is the person on the subway with an overstuffed bag and unfashionable walking shoes, just trying to get to and from work or home. It’s the wind-bitten locals rolling their eyes at the throngs of out-of-towners lined up to see The Daily Show, just as they do to the local Occupy Wall St. and Black Lives Matter protesters.
And you have to be able to love it. All of it. And, as a middle-class conservative raised on “midwestern values” in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, let me state that I do. Every single aching moment.
I love every stupid grimy crack on the sidewalks. I love every overly packed subway car and the flood of desperation that occurs every time the doors open. I love every unnecessary car honk issued by every obnoxious cab driver. I love the constant smell of truck exhaust mixed in with the smell of the steam pouring off the week-old candied nuts from corner vendors. I love the rip-off screen-print salesmen in Central Park.
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Brooklyn, which I call home, is filled with every urban gentrified hipster cliché under the sun. But it’s also filled with families pushing strollers past Abraham Lincoln stencil-art that has been sprayed strategically on brick warehouse walls. Not exactly a symbol of liberal-elite values. Near me, there are blocks upon blocks that are filled with small businesses and startup restaurants that will disappear at the first hint of rising rents. We might not say so in the same way here, but we hate it when our neighborhood mom-and-pop shops disappear in our city, just as much as you do in yours. It takes more courage to start up a small business in New York City than almost anywhere else in the country.
Sure, we elected a groundhog-murdering Sandinista as our mayor. But the lazy assumption that all of New York agrees with his values was demolished when a battalion of our police officers turned their backs on him in protest at his callowness. You wouldn’t know this from watching the VMAs or The Tonight Show, but New York cops and firefighters take more fan-pictures in a day than Jay Z or Jimmy Fallon does in a year.
Bill de Blasio won the vote of an electorate that is a small fraction of the 8 million people who live in this town. Ultimately, he has about as much control over New York City’s values as Tom Brady does. (De Blasio, note, is a Boston Red Sox fan.) In truth, New Yorkers are infinitely more interested in reading a take-out menu than a voting ballot. With homelessness and crime on the rise, however, perhaps we’ll learn our lesson come next election.
Until then, though, we’ll keep our attention on our Sunday crossword puzzles, our bagels, and our sports, and we’ll cherish the few quiet moments that we get to ourselves in this incredible kaleidoscope of noise and motion.
And we’ll still avoid Times Square at all costs.
— Stephen L. Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He publishes The Wilderness, which focuses on viral politics and social media.