Assignment: Take the m5 bus on a weekend at Houston and La Guardia Place to the last stop — George Washington Bridge — and return. The trip should take about 1.5 hours.
Make notes of what you find surprising — e.g. changing neighborhoods, changing people, changing architecture, or none of these — and write your own personal experience of the trip — observing, imagining, and reacting to New York, or you can choose to imagine a story about the people you see.
I rode the m5 bus on September 18, a Sunday afternoon. I felt that the trip was marked more by what I didn’t see than what I could see. 6th Street (Broadway) is a fairly large street and is commercial the whole way up, and the m5 bus follows Riverside Park for a good portion of the route. What I did see was the omnipresent oligopoly of large banks owning most street corners, and adding more branches, a move that save for their tidy, secure logos, reminds me a lot of Las Vegas, where everything is built around the massive money-making casinos. I am not sure whether all the bank locations are a good thing (liquidity of cash for shoppers) or a bad thing (banks owning high-value real estate, just because).
I also saw all races on the bus when near Greenwich Village heading north. It became more white around midtown, and certainly around Riverside Park, where a bunch of parents and their soccer kids got on, carrying cupcakes. By the end of the route, there was not a white in sight, and the black population near Harlem became almost completely Latino by the tail end of the m5. The large food and shopping chains disappeared above Central Park as I traveled into immigrant and non-white neighborhoods.
Here’s what I didn’t see. I didn’t see what I customarily see when I jog from East Village down to Battery Park, which is all the fishermen working the East River, all the Asians hanging out by the water near the old Fulton Fish Market. Or the private helicopters landing above the Stanton Island ferries and other pier ferries. I didn’t see what I saw the other night, which were all the flags planted in Battery Park for 9/11 remembrance, or the man who caught a massive whopper of a fish in Battery Park at around 11:30PM while admirers looked on and a skateboarder practiced a jump while his friend recorded…over and over and over.
I didn’t see inside the Waldorf-Astoria, lined with black privately-owned towncards and NYPD armed with carbine rifles to protect the well-to-do delegates to the United Nations National Assembly. I didn’t see the protest in Wall Street by affiliates of Anonymous to protest bankers’ stranglehold on the economy. I didn’t see many random cops or people being mean to each other, the usual stereotypes of NYC — contrary to that, people were extremely helpful to each other and quite nice and friendly. I already knew this about NYC but it always amazes me to see just how well people can get along, even when crammed together.
So here’s the real long and short of it: I just moved from DC, where I spent four years. I love that city, partially because of its rich and important history, partially because it’s the ultimate underdog but still cosmopolitan city, partially because the people there really want to make things better. While DC’s most exciting neighborhoods and streets radiate out from the White House like spokes, New York City is contained of pocket neighborhoods like Chinatown and SoHo and the East Village, which do not follow much of a linear pattern. It’s more organic, smacks less of central planning. While DC is experiencing an influx of rich, well-educated international elites whose concerns overpower the old black and local fractious communities, NYC’s communities are strong and defend their turf, in a good way. While DC is a flat city, because of zoning regulations that say buildings can’t be taller than the big monuments, NYC is a crowded city with massive towers and skyscrapers, so one does not always see the skyline, clouds, and sun.
Perhaps what I get out of all this is how important it can be to be able to claim a city as your identity. Some would not be so proud to be from, say, Cincinnati or Boise, people are clearly proud to be New Yorkers, regardless of their overall stakes in the city. I hate seeing Yankee caps everywhere but that’s a fact of life in NYC. What does it mean for individual identity when one can be so proud of and feel so loved by one’s city, largely accepted as the greatest city on Earth? While I saw some differences in place and style during my time traversing the city, mostly what I saw was a fairly unified cultural identity based not on religion or color or income, but place.