Cities Project Communities

To N.Y.C., the Best and Worst City in the World

by Michael Hearst

December 17, 2014

Dear New York City,

I once heard that W.B. Yeats was, throughout his poetic life, inspired by a woman named Maud Gonne. Yeats loved Gonne, unrequited. Gonne taunted and tempted Yeats for five decades. She was certain that if she ever gave in, Yeats would lose his poetic drive.

New York City, you are my Maud Gonne. 

You scared the hell out of me as a kid. Back then, my dad would fly us up from Virginia to eat raw fish. The blinding lights of Times Square, the continuous blasts of car honks, the tables of fake Seiko watches and knock-off Rubik’s Cubes, and the businessmen bashfully walking out of a 42nd Street shop. We’d creep by homeless people passed out on the sidewalk, and avoid eye contact with packs of teenagers carrying spray paint cans. Your provocative behavior charmed me, and I couldn’t wait to see you again.

In the late 90s, my friends and I would drive up to play indie rock at your dingy clubs. Nothing like a seven-hour road trip to play a show in a dark basement club to three people, then immediately turn around and drive home the same night. But I did it for you, New York, because you were the place to be. The Lower East Side with its stench of post-punk coolness.

Or maybe that was just the piles of garbage bags barricading the double-parked cars from the fast-moving residents—young men and women dressed in black: black leather jackets, black pants, black-dyed hair. Their jaded faces unwilling to look me in the eye. Was this the actual, for-real world?

Around the turn of the century, there was a glimmer of possibility for us to have a real relationship. The trains were suddenly nice and shiny, and the used needles had been swept from the sidewalks. Well, hello Brooklyn, nice to meet you. What I’d learned about you from Chaim Potok, Spike Lee, and Neil Diamond was fascinating, but totally inaccessible to a non-native such as myself. Yet, here you suddenly were with open arms in a way that Manhattan had never been for me. A perfect respite from the rumble of your inner belly. And so, I crossed the Verrazano Bridge in my rented one-way moving van. I glanced to the right, and noticed the iconic red parachute jump sprouting from Coney Island like a potentially poisonous mushroom. To the left, a distant view of lower Manhattan with all of its parts and pieces—the motherboard for the entire country. As I descended the bridge into Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, I thought about that scene from Saturday Night Fever where John Travolta unsuccessfully tries to save his miserably drunk friend from jumping to the rocks below. What had I gotten myself into? Would I survive? Were you, in fact, an amalgam of all my fears? Or were you a new lifestyle of non-stop excitement and opportunity that I so desperately needed. One way to find out.

I thought I was prepared for the worst. I mean, I had always expected our romance to be turbulent, but I’d rather not smell burning jet fuel ever again. I can’t think of a more terrible way to kick things off. For therapy, I’d sit in your Park Slope coffee houses and work on the next great American novel. I’d commiserate with all the merchants that I’d become friends with in my four-block radius: Katja at her video store, who could always advise you on which movie to rent. Olivier at his bar, who booked world music so obscure that even people from around the world were baffled. And Yonatan at his pastry shop, who was determined to turn Brooklynites onto the mini-almond cake known as The Financier.  If that didn’t cheer me up, I’d eat at a different ethnic restaurant each night of the week: Japanese on Monday, Thai on Tuesday, Indian on Wednesday, Italian on Thursday, Lebanese on Friday, German on Saturday, and Chinese on Sunday.

Amazingly, it did make me happy. It made us happy! We would rally. We needed to stand strong. After all, we were now a we! Let’s put up a plaque to solidify our love. “We Will Never Forget!”

Of course, we started to forget. Sometimes, I suppose, it’s necessary to forget (a little) in order to move forward. And so we held hands as we waited at intersections for the little green blinking man. We pushed our strollers to the park and had picnics of Banh Mi and iced lattes.

And we sneezed out money and watched our bank accounts deplete. Throughout our years together, it’s become clear that you are the best and worst of everything, New York. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes you the second greatest city in the world. If only I could find the first.

Love,
Michael

Michael Hearst is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and writer. He is best known as a founding member of the eclectic musical group One Ring Zero, and for his solo albums Songs For Ice Cream TrucksSongs For Unusual CreaturesSongs For Fearful Flyers, and the children's book Unusual Creatures.

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The GOOD Cities Project is a five-month collaboration with Ford, exploring how we make our cities and how our cities make us. As part of the project, GOOD and Ford have commissioned cultural creatives across the country to help illuminate and celebrate the rich and vastly diverse points of view that make up each city’s individual character. Each week, we will be exploring attributes that we believe are fundamental to living meaningful urban lives.

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To N.Y.C., the Best and Worst City in the World