I was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Holliswood, Queens. For those unfamiliar with New York, it is divided into 5 boroughs, each of which has its own character and history. Most people, when they think of New York, think of Manhattan. This is the island on which you will find Wall Street, the Empire State Building and other signature buildings that symbolize the city of New York.
Most of New York is not Manhattan, and even Manhattan isn’t just skyscrapers and Fifth Avenue. It too has its neighborhoods where people make homes. Greenwich Village, at the lower end of the island, is nothing like Wall Street. Harlem bears little resemblance to Park Avenue which has a character utterly different than the Lower East Side. Fort Tryon Park — home of the Cloisters — is a different world from Broadway. Manhattan is small, but there’s a lot of stuff going on. From the carousel in the park to the open air markets near Rivington Street, to Tiffany and the canyons of the financial district, there’s something to fascinate everyone, all crammed into a very small space.
Which is how come most people don’t live in Manhattan. Real estate prices are out of sight, so most of the life of the city happens in the other four boroughs.
Brooklyn and Queens are where most people live, in the many neighborhoods. I grew up in Queens in Holliswood. It was big old houses, woods and fields when I lived there, though I suppose that has changed. Despite being less than a mile from major subway lines and downtown Jamaica , we were surrounded by small truck farms. People raised garden crops, even corn. There were ducks, geese and chickens. Donkeys, too. The city had grown around Holliswood, but had not yet consumed it.
Brooklyn went through similar changes, although Brooklyn was, until recently, more populous and urban than Queens. The biggest changes in my lifetime have taken place as rundown areas gentrified and became “classy” and expensive. I understand Staten Island is no longer the suburban-exurban area it was, but I haven’t been there in a long time so all I can do is pass on rumors. The same is true of the Bronx. I never really spent any time in the Bronx, but I hear that it’s beginning to pull out of its many decades long slump.
Gentrification is changing the face of cities all across the U.S. People are coming back to the cities.
I needed to provide this background because when I say I grew up in New York City, people get the wrong idea. I really didn’t grow up on the mean streets. I grew up in a rambling old house surrounded by trees, not unlike where I live now … except I took a subway to school and had access to all the stuff that New York offers. It was, from a teenager’s point of view, about as good as it gets. Life in a country setting with cheap, easy access to the city of New York.
The first time I really lived in a city was Jerusalem. Although Jerusalem is definitely urban, it’s not urban like Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston. It’s unique. Special and very ancient. It is full of ghosts and thousands of years of history hang heavy on its stone walls. Definitely not your average urban area. After I moved back to the U.S., I settled in Boston, which was my first American urban living experience. I liked it. Mostly, I liked the restaurants.
I didn’t like the dirt, the parking problems, the traffic, the noise, or the constant construction and gridlock. Not to mention the petty crime that’s an inescapable part of city life and from which no neighborhood is exempt. It doesn’t matter where you live or how much you pay. People will break into your car, burglarize your house if they can and sometimes, hold you up to take anything you’ve got worth taking. I never got mugged, but an awful lot of people I knew did. I had a couple of cars stolen and vandalized. That must count for something.
And then … after ten years in Roxbury, which was, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, a wonderful neighborhood, we got out of Boston and moved to … where did you say? Uxbridge? Where is Uxbridge? No, not Oxford. South central Massachusetts down by the Rhode Island border. Due south of Worcester. The Blackstone Valley. Yes, that’s in Massachusetts. It’s off the Mass Pike.
We settled into living in a very small town with few changes to our life style. It turned out neighbors are neighbors. They were friendlier in Roxbury and certainly nosier, probably because we lived so tightly packed together … but rumors fly thick and fast in the country, too.
I have lived, as you can tell, in many places and I have found many things are universally true wherever you live. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big city or a tiny village, everyone knows your business. You don’t have to tell them. They hear it through the walls, they pick it up in the grocery store, in church, from your kids and friends and family.
People talk. If you are doing anything interesting, they will talk about you. Even if you aren’t doing anything interesting, they will talk about you because people talk about each other. It’s a people thing.
Uxbridge is not exactly exciting. There isn’t much crime and not many organized activities, though the churches do their best to fill the gap. No public transportation, so teenagers have a hard time until they can get a license to drive. Mostly, life is people spending time with people. Hanging out with friends. Watching a movie together. Shopping in a group. Celebrating holidays and birthdays. Barbeques in the back yard in the summer. Trick or treating on Halloween.
If Uxbridge had coffee houses, lots of shops and museums, how often would we go there? How often did we go to such places when we lived near them? I lived in Boston for 15 years and I only went to the Museum of Science after moving to Uxbridge because I wanted my granddaughter to see it.
I grew up in New York and never visited the Statue of Liberty. I did spend time in museums while I was growing up, but my family didn’t take me there. I was interested in history, so I took myself. Famous sights? The Empire State Building? Never been to the top. Never visited the World Trade Center. Never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge or visited Ellis Island. This is true of most New Yorkers. Tourists go those places. New Yorkers only go if they are entertaining out-of-town guests or work in the building.
No matter where you live, life is about people and relationships, not places. City and country are not all that different except for scenery. People are people. Suburb, city, or middle of nowhere, it’s your friends and family who are your world, not your town, city, or state. Where you live is a state of mind, not of the union.