Seeking further enlightenment into the city we call home, I recently took a class on the literary and cultural history of New York City. Among the many themes common to New York City novels we discussed was the portrayal of the city itself as a character with power to shape the lives of its citizens.
Many of us New Yorkers have felt this pressure in our own lives: we choose where to live based on our budgets, our hobbies, our family situation, and often our ethnic, linguistic or religious origins. The neighborhoods we choose shape our daily lives in ways it is sometimes difficult for those who have never lived in this city to understand. Those with many amenities—such as proximity to work, a doorman, safe neighborhoods and nearby groceries, banks, libraries and schools—have a lighter load than those without. Those without spend significant amounts of their time dealing with aspects of daily life taken for granted by others. Small choices we make out of necessity allow New York to determine the details of our lives in ways great and small.
Sometimes we are content with these choices, but it is not uncommon to meet New Yorkers displeased with their lot, who feel they have a constricted menu of options. This pessimistic view sees the city as a monolithic beast before which we quake as powerless mortals. We are the dispirited Bartlebys and the savage and depraved hoodlums of Last Exit to Brooklyn.
But is this image of the city as a force stronger than its citizens an entirely valid representation? Is it not possible that we shape the city in return?
Fiorello La Guardia, ca. 1939There is the Great Man theory of change, of course, that people like Robert Moses, Fiorello La Guardia, Jane Jacobs, and yes, even Rudy Giuliani are responsible for giving the city a dramatic push towards revolutionary change.
There are also social movements that bring about change—think neighborhood organizing in Harlem, Stonewall Inn and the Gay Rights movement, or the more recent development of bicycling activism.
But when it comes down to it, most of us aren’t mayors, or city planners or social activists. Most New Yorkers live their daily lives in small ways, and yet they still exert what I like to call “unconscious change.” The choices they make—where to shop, where to live and socialize—are like dripping water on a stone.
The actions of numerous individuals all making seemingly private, personal decisions with their lives form a stream growing in force until the city is powerless to overturn its onslaught. We see this in myriad ways, from the building of the city ever northwards from the moment it was founded—by individuals setting up shop and constructing homes—to the influx of immigrants during the late 1800s, and the great migrations from the southern states in the early twentieth century. These demographic shifts forever altered the culture, cuisine, religious makeup, and literally the faces of the typical New Yorker. And similar movements continue to do so today.
Not only do new populations remake the larger shape of the city, their complicated ebb and flow alter the look and feel, and even economic status, of neighborhoods. This movement of social or ethnic communities is a phenomenon that has always existed, although today many rail against the form of it known as “gentrification.” However one feels about it—whether you are moving into an exciting “new” neighborhood or being pushed out by rising rents—demographic change traditionally has been THE defining factor of New York City neighborhood history.
Restaurant in "Little Syria"For example, many know that Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood today, was once overwhelmingly German. But few remember that the area around Battery Park City was once called “Little Syria,” due to the Syrian, Lebanese and Turkish immigrants settled in the area. As any long-term resident can tell you, the character of neighborhoods can sometimes change quite drastically, with nary a reminder of their former selves left behind. The only constant in New York is constant change.
So while we may sometimes feel powerless in our daily struggle against the city and its inconveniences, sometimes it’s a relief to think you, too, are leaving behind your mark, one small choice at a time.
For further inspiration on this topic, try these books:
And these photograph collections:
Community development. Urban -- New York (State) -- New York
Cultural pluralism -- New York (State) -- New York.
Gentrification. -- New York (State) -- New York
Neighborhoods -- New York (State) -- New York.
New York (N.Y.) -- Social conditions.
New York (N.Y.) -- Social life and customs.
Urbanization -- New York (State) -- New York