New York City Why now more than ever the city is a wonderful place to call home
(MONEY Magazine) – In a luxuriant private courtyard garden on the east side of Manhattan, in a neighborhood known long ago for its turtle population and known now for its celebrity inhabitants, writer E.B. White had a favorite tree. "It is a battered tree, long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it," he wrote in 1948. To White, reminiscing about his younger years in New York City, the tree was a symbol of the city itself, of "life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun." Looking at the tree as an older man, White declared that the tree must be saved--"this very tree"--for "if it were to go, all would go--this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death."
So ends Here is New York, White's famous homage to the city. Were he alive today, the longtime writer for the New Yorker and author of Charlotte's Web would be appalled by many of the changes in the city--the ubiquity of Gap and Starbucks stores, the breakneck pace at which many New Yorkers live their lives, the greater emphasis on the pursuit of money and celebrity rather than ideas. But he would be happy to know that, according to his formula, there is still hope for this mischievous and marvelous city. For while the tree that he gazed out upon more than 50 years ago may look different owing to decades of careful pruning, it still survives in his old courtyard garden, much loved by its neighbors.
It's such continuity and community amid the constant change that helps make New York City such a beautiful, rich and inspiring place to live. For those of us who live here, Sept. 11's vicious attack brought to the surface a fierce love of our city. As fires smoldered downtown, it became more apparent than ever to us that beneath the city's glittering and gruff exterior is a living community that, in our collective grief, feels very important to us. So we decided to abandon our plans to provide rankings of "The Best Places to Live" in this space (although you can find comprehensive data at www.money.com). Instead, we decided to celebrate the city we love in words and photos that highlight the mix of people and places that make New York such a rewarding place to live. To help tell our story, we asked Mayor Rudy Giuliani to write in his own words why he loves New York. We also asked famous New Yorkers such as actress Susan Sarandon, New York Met Mike Piazza and T.V. personality Al Roker to tell us what makes New York so special to them. And Wall Street's Abby Joseph Cohen focuses on what she loves most about New York: the students at Stuyvesant High School.
New York is a city of constant invention and innovation--of self, of art, of commerce, of thought. We each create our own personal universe out of what New York offers, picking and choosing from an embarrassment of riches in people, places and things. The marvel is that so many contrasts can coexist so close to one another. Somehow we make it all work, all 200 or so languages and dialects and forty-odd religious variations coming together to shape a city that is chaotic and cozy, infuriating and enchanting, maddening and exhilarating.
Maybe it all works because we are a city of people who like being around other people, a city where diversity is the norm and eccentricity is encouraged--or at least appreciated. We're invigorated by contradictions. And if something doesn't exist here naturally, and we want it as part of our lives, we will find a way to get it.
Consider the 27 greenmarkets in the city's five boroughs. At the city's largest greenmarket, in Manhattan's Union Square Park, farmers drive in from five states to set up white peaked tents on the macadam below busy two-lane 17th Street. Rushed office workers, parents taking children to the playground and chefs from the city's finest restaurants linger over the 22 varieties of apples, 30 kinds of muffins, 50 different herbs. The farmers also bring a sense of community. Just how strong that connection is became clear to farmers at markets near the World Trade Center, when, after Sept. 11, some heard from customers who'd tracked them to their homes in upstate New York to make sure they were okay. A fund has been started to help farmers who lost vehicles and stands at the World Trade Center, and so far citizens have donated $55,000.
The rural and the urban come together in the city in countless other ways. A 20-minute ride on the A train will deposit a visitor near the last bit of primeval forest left in Manhattan, in the 196-acre Inwood Hill Park, which borders the Hudson River. There, an "urban forest walking tour" with a lecturer in botany from the American Museum of Natural History reveals that Manhattan has the nation's largest remaining stand of old elms, that we have the world's southernmost fjord, that less than an hour's train ride away there's a "running of the shad" festival on the Hudson River every spring.
Then there are the gardens of the Bronx, just a half-hour or so out of Manhattan. The stunning 28-acre Wave Hill estate is the onetime home of a young Teddy Roosevelt and, later, of an older Mark Twain, who built a treehouse there. Scattered around the rolling lawns, citizens perform the ritual reading of the Sunday New York Times in Adirondack chairs, contemplate the Hudson from the pergola or practice t'ai chi. Behind the greenhouse and gardens, a barefoot young girl, enchanted by a round stone pavilion tucked away in the trees, turns to her mother and declares that if she ever were going to become a poet, she'd spend most of her time here.
You just can't help but stumble upon all sorts of wonderful spectacles and events in New York, planned and spontaneous. Coming back from Inwood Hill Park, you walk through Central Park and find a "falconry extravaganza" under way on the Great Lawn. While one falconer shows off his young peregrine falcon, the bird swooping down and around to follow a lure, a wild adult peregrine falcon appears out of nowhere--"It lives on Mary Tyler Moore's building!"--cries someone in the crowd. The wild bird, feeling territorial, dives toward the younger bird. New York City, as it turns out, packs the highest number of breeding peregrine falcons into the smallest area of any place in the U.S. The falcons have an abundant food supply in that most New York of birds: the pigeon. To live in a city that is home to both pigeons and peregrines is a wonderful thing.
New York City is, in fact, a birder's paradise. One of the greatest urban wildlife refuges in the U.S., right on the migratory flyway, is a 45-minute subway ride from Manhattan in the borough of Queens (at $1.50, you can't beat the price). The 9,155-acre Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is home to yellow-crowned night herons, snowy egrets and barn owls. More than 330 species of birds join New Yorkers in enjoying the refuge. Even here, the loss of the Twin Towers is felt. "It was so beautiful in the morning when the sun hit the tops of the towers," says Don Riepe, a National Park Service ranger at the refuge.
The exotic and the mundane mix in all sorts of unlikely places in New York's boroughs. What could be more mundane than Staten Island's Fresh Kills landfill--one of the largest man-made structures ever? But on that same island, a free 25-minute ferry ride from Manhattan, is the country's first authentic Chinese scholar's garden, an $8 million oasis that took 40 Chinese artisans six months to assemble without using a single nail. A bus ride away on Lighthouse Avenue, high on a hill, you find a Tibetan museum, where visitors sit on benches flanking the four robed monks chanting prayers and blessings. Nearby, you can see Crimson Beech, the only New York City residence designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Almost anywhere you are in New York, you find yourself happily stumbling into buildings with architectural or historical echoes. The 1,000 people gathered on a recent night at Cooper Union to hear writers such as Susan Sontag, Michael Cunningham and Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States, read poems that helped them during times of crisis found themselves in the same spot where Abraham Lincoln spoke in 1860. Latecomers had to buy standing-room-only tickets-yes, for a poetry reading--and some 500 people were turned away. (The money raised will go to the American Red Cross.) The turnout is a sign of the times, but it also reflects New Yorkers' passion for art in every form, from the chalk drawings on the sidewalks and the mosaics of tiles and broken china on lampposts to the International Salsa Museum.
We know that we're far from a perfect city. There's the traffic, the noise, the construction, the surly salespeople and, of course, the high cost of living in most of the five boroughs. But the inconveniences of New York City living pale beside all that it has to offer. Maybe we New Yorkers are eternal optimists, but, in essence, we know there's a price to pay for such a rich city, so we make peace with it the best we can.
Back in the communal courtyard in E.B. White's former home in Turtle Bay Gardens, that willow tree endures. The residents of the brownstones that shield the garden from the street are trying to grow clippings from the old tree, so there will be a legacy in case they can't keep the original tree alive. The mischievous and marvelous spirit of the city will remain.