Community in New York City
There’s an artist on Instagram that I follow named Mari Andrew (@bymariandrew). While all of her illustrations are heart wrenching and beautiful and comical and relatable, there was something about a recent post that made me laugh and then grimace and then think.
In the above picture, Mari is talking to an anonymous person, telling them she just moved to New York City and as she’s about to tell this person what she loves about it, they cut in with, “oh I could never live in New York. Visiting is nice. But live. No. Never.”
I’ve lived in New York City just under two years now and when most people ask me how I like it, I take a deep breathe, ready to share all the amazing things I’ve learned and experienced in my time here. Of course, much like in Mari’s art, I’m quickly reminded that my co-conversationalist could “never live in New York” because (insert any plethora of negative stereotypes here).
It’s kind of like that moment when you show someone your apartment and they hit you with the, “this is actually nice!” exclamation where they silently tell you they’ve been picturing every New York City residence as a rat-infested closet shared by fourteen strangers.
All that said, I did have my share of misconceptions upon moving here – one of which was my sense of community. I spent my first eight months in three different sublets, never giving myself a chance to settle anywhere and never really feeling like I was fully there.
My third apartment in the summer of 2016 took me to a four bedroom of young men who had moved in together but, prior to moving in, did not know each other. The realtor had connected each of them and after they all were briefly acquainted at a local coffee shop, they moved in together. When one of them was leaving for the summer, I took his place and found my community in that apartment.
New York City doesn’t have what I – as a child – understood as community. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and more specifically in a small neighborhood where everybody knew everybody. I fed carrots to my neighbor’s horse and later would take care of his cats when he was out of town. My dad and I picked apples from another neighbor’s garden and then turned the fruit into the applesauce. I’d walk across the yard to return a mason jar of homemade apple sauce.
I grew up with the boys down the road and babysat the children across the street. When a new neighbor moved in, my mother and I would make some sort of baked good (sometimes zucchini cake with zucchini from my dad’s garden) and we’d walk to the neighbors to introduce ourselves. We had a neighborhood picnic each year and I loved knowing the people around me.
When I was ready to sign a lease with four friends, I remember feeling like I finally had “my own room.” Of course, I only had my own room because my old roommate had left a bed and a dresser and two lamps. The previous tenant had sold me her air conditioning unit and the stools in our kitchen.
Within a couple days of living at the new apartment, I had met quite a few of my neighbors and when the laundry card machine in the basement was out of service – thus preventing us from doing our laundry – our across-the-hall neighbor gave us her extra card because “she didn’t need two.”
I’ve found community in the people I spend hours with each day at work. I’ve found community in the fellow church-goers I pray with each Sunday morning. I’ve found community in the roommates I’ve gone to call friends and the friends that have turned into roommates. Most of all, though, I’ve found community in New York City.
There’s a lot of talk about this place being mean and miserable but at the end of it, I have not lived a single day here without someone having my back. Whether it was the first people who took me in and called me a friend or the way my tribe seem to pass along things like fans and furniture from one apartment to another making sure everyone has what they need.
New York isn’t like western Pennsylvania. Neighbors didn’t show up with homemade mason jars of applesauce when we moved in. Half the apartment wasn’t even aware that we were new tenants. But they showed up in the small talk at the mailboxes or when they hold the door for you when you bought just a few too many groceries and were clear out of hands to key into the building.
There’s a quote that I love by Anthony D’Angelo that says, “Without a sense of caring, there can be no sense of community.”
If you chose to see New York as a daunting mess of people and things that are out to get you, I guarantee that is all it will ever materialize to be. If you look for the bad in this city – or the world beyond – there is certainly evil, and you will almost certainly find it.
However, if you choose to move to a place and you choose to love it relentlessly, you will be amazed at what blossoms in your path.
Last week, I went to the apartment of a couple I go to church with. We had supper together and visited and at the end of the night, I gave them both big hugs and walked home. It would be easy to move somewhere new and retreat into yourself, easy to stick with what you know, easy to compare every new thing to what came before it.
Instead, say hi to your neighbor. Hold the door. Get involved in your community. Volunteer. At the end of the day, we are only as strong as what surrounds us. Change, love, togetherness – that all happens where you are. Be a part of it.