NEW YORK—I began the summer on a mission to acquaint myself with New York City. To anyone who knows me, this may seem like a redundant task. The quintessential city girl—scared of wildlife and wary of white picket fences—I’ve lived most of my 21 years on this tiny island and profess my love of it to anyone who will listen. But after three years in Boston and a summer in Russia, it seemed that my city and I had grown apart.
The twin towers that loomed so large in my youth were gone—and I had not been there to say goodbye. New hot neighborhoods—like the Brooklyn blocks whimsically dubbed DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)—had sprung up without me to gaze in their shop windows. And a new mayor had wiped out the city’s recycling program and banished smoke clouds from sidewalk cafes.
The deluge of questions from other interns in my office and Harvard friends about New York this summer only decreased my confidence in labeling myself a true New Yorker. “What’s a casual/hip/fun place to eat in the West Village?” “How do you get to the MOMA in Queens?” “Have you ever been to Bungalow 8?”
“I don’t know.” “I don’t know.” “No.”
I forlornly wished I had a Time Out New York—the equivalent of a cheat sheet for these who-what-where-when-how quizzes about the New York scene—or (gasp) that I too were an excusably-naive summer interloper.
Turning a blind eye to the rest of the world, I set out to the neighborhoods I had known before and those I had never explored. Shopping in SoHo, dinner in Union Square, bowling in Chelsea, preppy bars on the Upper East. All were fun. I found the same good food, the same quirky side streets and discovered the teeming city nightlife I’d glimpsed as a high schooler.
My first month in the city, however, just left me questioning even more not only if I could justly be considered a life-long New Yorker, but also if I wanted to be. A stalled subway car and a crabby bus driver put me off of New York’s famed public transportation system. The slow-moving crowds on my morning walk down Wall Street left me wishing for an expansion of Central Park.
And despite my determined wanderings, a few weekends had gotten me off my warpath of self-discovery—and into the rest of America. The Fourth of July in D.C. showed me the fun of a garden on a warm summer day and the airy feeling of a wide, sparsely-populated city boulevard. And a weekend rummaging through the basement and attic of my grandparents’ Kansas City house made me reconsider the possibilities that lurk behind picket fences.
But just when I began to imagine myself hopping into a car to get a carton of milk—instead of walking around the corner—a fantastic building scandal made me realize that I had been looking for the soul of New York (and my New Yorker soul) in all the wrong places.
One afternoon a doorman surreptitiously slipped my mother a note saying that our superintendent—who was supposedly setting off the next week to visit a dying brother in Yugoslavia—was actually going away to serve a prison sentence. Some searching on the Department of Justice’s website revealed he was expected to arrive at a Pennsylvania prison. Google work by a neighbor showed more—that he was in fact a member of the Genovese crime family ring and had been convicted of trying to extort money from the New York Times’ printing facility.
While this building scandal might have cast more doubt on my choice to live in New York, it instead reinvigorated my love of a city made great by the variety of people that you can bump into on the bus, in a chic restaurant or in your lobby. The heart of New York does not change with the migration of yuppies to a new neighborhood or the destruction of a landmark. It exists in the wondrous possibility that your super is in the mafia, the cast of “Sex and the City” is shooting on your corner and the next guy you meet at a party is a world-class concert pianist.
New York’s soul is in the fluctuating mass of people that continue to wander its noisy streets and inhabit its cramped apartments. That is why, no matter how much the city’s physical shell will change, I have always been and will always be a New Yorker.
And that is why I will never hop in the car to get a carton of milk.
Anne K. Kofol ’04, an executive editor of The Crimson, is a history and literature concentrator in Mather House. She hums the Working Girl theme song as she walks down Wall Street every morning and she will probably never make it to Bungalow 8.