Cities and their Ambitions (Why I Love New York)

It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.
— Colum McCann in Let the Great World Spin
One of the beauties of New York is that you can be from anywhere and within moments of landing it is yours.
— Colum McCann in Let the Great World Spin

I have been thinking a lot about New York lately.

When I came to D.C. eight years ago, I had a standard line about why I loved D.C. and how I could never live in New York: The Big Apple, you see, was too overwhelming. Surrounded by concrete, how could you see the sky? Surrounded by people, how can you find yourself?

D.C., on the other hand, is literally constructed as an homage to its own power. The city is built around its monuments: the streets pour out from the Capitol, its buildings bow to the Washington Monument. 

For some, for many, the city seems built as an affirmation of their power--if only they could live up to it. It is an insular city, with a culture of its own, that supports its own.  

Los Angeles feels to me to be very much the same. The ambition of Los Angeles is not for power, but for fame. To be known. To be valued. The city boasts fame, and its people try to catch it. To own it for as long as they can. To chase it again. 

Washington and Los Angeles entice you with the empty promise that they could be won. They are cities filled with aspiring conquerors.


I first fell in love with New York in October 2011. Melissa and I had only been married for a few months, and we had the incredible opportunity to spend a couple days with friends in Long Island. We decided to tack an extra day onto our trip to spend in Manhattan. 

We spent our day in Manhattan finding great little shops and restaurants, expressions of life that seemed tailor-made, too specific to flourish, yet flourishing still. We drove through Chelsea and TriBeCa to find a playground adjacent to a busy intersection, and I exclaimed to Melissa, "people do raise families in New York!" It was like a revelation.

During that trip, our first real, non-touristy trip to New York, we discovered something new about the city:

New York will not be won. No one can own New York: test this city, and it will slap you down hard. The city does not belong to you, the joy of New York is that you might make it so that you belong to her. 

Place yourself on any street corner in New York, and it is bursting with life. There is an anonymity, a perspective, that you gain from such surroundings.

Unlike Los Angeles, it does not thrive on fame--which is always about the past. Unlike D.C., its lifeblood is not the acquisition of power, which is necessarily about the present.

New York's ambition is creativity. An ambition with the weaknesses of all ambitions, but with the advantage that it is always looking towards the future, to be a part of a bigger story, a larger patchwork.  

I have been drawn to that creative ambition in recent days. I desire to do something new, to push on, to find a place.

I will fly to New York tomorrow: Eager for that reminder New York gives, that the city goes on without us, that a song will be sung regardless, but that we are invited to add our voice to the chorus.