Spirit of Place: New York City

I love cities.  I love my home town so much I blew it up.  Really.  The Stone War, published in 1999, was at its root a discussion of love of place and love of person (and where they intersect) and a mash note to my hometown and favorite city in the world, New York.

I know New York is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Some people don’t care for cities, no matter how glorious.  Not everyone born a New Yorker loves it: my brother was born there and hates it.   Not everyone from out of town hates it, either.  Some  people get off the bus or the train or the helicopter and take a breath and just know they’re home.  The Stone War was, in part, my attempt to to describe what I find so profoundly lovable about NYC.  If you don’t have time right now to read an entire novel, here are Five Things to Love About New York:

Its compression.  New York isn’t a small city, but compared to many cities without its geographical limitations it’s compact.  That’s part of why it’s such a vertical city–when you can’t spread out, you spread up.  New York is like a field of caves and canyons and mesas, all man made.  The city uses all its space–below the ground (as they say in the song, the people ride in a hole in the ground) up into the sky, packing more art, life, food, confusion, beauty, ugliness, and generosity in a square foot than you’d think the laws of physics would allow.

Its structures.  The protagonist of The Stone War is an architect for good reason.  I wanted someone who could walk around the city with a sense of its structure and physical beauty.  Every city has architecture: New York has, with the possible exception of wattle-and-daub cottages and igloos, just about every imaginable kind of architecture, from every year of the last 300 or so, jumbled together, full of surprises.  The city’s a palimpsest, bits of forgotten architecture and culture shine through.  When a building is being razed, look at the walls of the structures next to it and you’re likely to see a 1920s painted advertisement or a bit of lost ornamental detail.  The house I grew up in (seen in the watercolor above painted by my father) was built in 1837.  Down the street were buildings older and newer.  The city changes constantly and stays the same.

Its people.  The myth, perpetuated by sitcoms and movies, is that New York is a scary place full of nasty, hardbitten people.  New Yorkers are like M&Ms–hard shell and a melty core.  Living in a place as chock-full of humans as it is, you have to develop a bit of a shell.  Pierce that shell, ask for directions, say, or lose a contact lens, and suddenly you’ve got people coming out of the woodwork to help (when my older daughter was very young and still dealing with potty training, it wasn’t her babysitter who got her to leave the sandbox in Central Park to find the bathroom; it was Katie Couric, who was in the playground with her kid and intervened when she saw Julie doing the potty-dance).  Cultures?  Neighborhoods?  Foods?  Whaddaya want?  Yeah, we got that.

Its weird.  I was working on 53rd and Lexington a couple of decades ago when, around Christmas time, I saw a young, preppie-looking guy on the sidewalk with a bunch of bullwhips around his neck like a wreath.  Rather laconically, he was switching one and calling “Whips!  Perfect stocking stuffer.  Whips! Bring one home to the wife or girlfriend.  Whips…”  And no one batted an eye.  There’s the strange guy with the world’s most beat up saxophone who used to get on a subway car, mangle the first couple of bars of the theme to The Twilight Zone, then announce that the Aliens in his Head would force him to keep playing unless unless we contributed a little something to his Operating Fund (this guy wasn’t crazy, just canny).  Or the guy whose panhandling come-on was “Can you spare $27,000,000 for a Boeing 747?  No?  How about a dollar for some coffee?”  New York does colorful in its own distinct way.

Its courage.  When I was a kid and there were blackouts or blizzards or subway strikes, the city managed to make kind of a party out of it.  My father directed traffic at 53rd and Madison, where he worked, for two hours during a blackout, then walked 40 blocks home and was smiling when he got there.  Civic improv, you might call it, and New Yorkers are pros at it. Even when things get really grim.  On 9/11 what I remember is the little things…going to the market that day and watching as, over and over, people approached a staple–bottled water or toilet paper or milk–and hesitated, and then took just what they needed for now. In the days afterward, people kept going to work and living their lives.  My daughter had a soccer game the first Saturday after the Event, and the city had been eerie and quiet for days, but there all of us were on a perfect autumn day, watching our five-year-olds play clusterball and willfully not looking at the sky.

When I go back to New York I become livelier and more relaxed, more myself.  In Greek myth, Antaeus was the son of Gaia; he was hard to beat in a fight because every time you knocked him down, he was revived with contact with Mother Earth, bounced right back and waded in, swinging.  New York City is my Mother Earth, every gritty, crowded, chaotic, insanely human bit of it.  There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and for a writer, that’s paradise.


Madeleine Robins, New Yorker by nature and nurture, now lives in San Francisco.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Spirit of Place: New York City — 8 Comments

  1. I’ve only lived in NYC for one summer, but I visit frequently. It is the center of the world, the way Rome was two thousand years ago, or London was two hundred years ago. Washington DC is stuffy and political and closes down early; you can feel New York beat like a heart around the clock.

  2. I went once to explore it with my grandparents, but I missed a lot — it was before the World Trade Center was built, and now I shall never see it. I’d like to go back as an adult and see a few things — have to be able to afford the hotels first, or know which subways to take in from outside every day!

  3. I love New York. I used to get goose-bumps when the train would pull into Penn Station and the conductor would announce New York City. It’s like no place else.

    The sheer volume of people gets to me after awhile, though, and then I want to be somewhere with no people, like the West Texas mountains. I wrote an SF story last year in which someone commutes from Marfa to Brooklyn via “Transphaxx” in part to bemoan my desire to live in both places at once.

    And my friend Robert Wexler’s latest novel, The Painting and the City, is another love letter to the city. (He doesn’t live there any more either, and I know he was glad to leave, but his main character loves New York and I suspect Robert is fond of it, too.)

    Mad, is The Stone War available somewhere?

  4. Nancy Jane, I’m your exact opposite: I can spend a bit of time somewhere empty of people, then I need to get back. I love your idea of a Transphaxx…I could get my wide-open-spaces fix and get home in time for dinner!

    The Stone War shows up at Amazon and Powells on occasion. It’s now an elder states-book…

  5. I fell in love with New York City when I first visited in 2000. And I thought I wouldn’t care for another big city, being an LA girl. But unlike LA, with its eighty miles of sprawl, you can walk all up and down Manhattan and it is never boring.

    I keep wishing that some miracle would occur so I could live there for a year.

  6. I have to note that NY is not the only city I love; I don’t think it’s two-timing New York to love London or Chicago or Paris or Barcelona. Or even San Francisco, which my daughter, when we first moved here, dissed as being “too short”.

  7. I’ve have lived in NY several times, for a total of more than a decade. Contrary to the popular saying, I think it’s a great place to live, but terrible to visit.

    Short-term visitors cannot truly appreciate the depths of what’s available (good and bad, free and costly) in The City.

    Another interesting fact about The City is how well you can live there if you’re rich. But most people understand that. What they don’t understand that is how well you can live there if you’re poor.

    But if you’re a middle-income family, NYC can be a tough place to live and enjoy.