Thursday, November 6, 2014

New York I Love You

At the risk of sounding trite: New York City, am I right?

Some context: last weekend, we loaded ourselves into a Megabus (slogan: "Your ass will never be the same") and took a twelve-hour journey to the City That Never Sleeps But Will Sometimes Concede To A Nap. The whole thing was a brain-mash of one-second memories and vague impressions: the guy at Hallowmas who tried to hit on me and reestablish his stick-on moustache at the same time; the smoked-cashew salsa at the upscale taqueria; being utterly ignored by the shopgirls at Helmut Lang (granted, we had just gotten off the bus and I was still wearing sweatpants, so I can't really blame 'em); M staring wistfully over the edge of the High Line as Graham turned to me and said, "This totally looks like the cover a book called Contemplating Joey Ramone"; seeing hot-pink leather aprons for sale in Greenwich Village; buying sky-scraping vintage heels; the complimentary hotel wine as it was handed over by the front desk clerk, whose eyebrows were unabashedly just drawn right on and also slightly uneven; etc, etc.

Also, we saw Lili Taylor and Nick Flynn on a tour of the Tenement Museum, and seriously, if that place wasn't a national treasure before, it damn well sure is now.

I think that, like most people, I have a tendency to compare whatever big city I'm currently in to my hometown of Toronto. It's inevitable, right? They have graffiti everywhere, while ours is concentrated in certain hipster nabes. The High Line (not to mention Central Park) is a magnificent expression of public planning and integrated public works management, while Toronto has Trinity Bellwoods and, like, the West Toronto Rail Path? There's just so much more stuff there, so much more complexity. I saw a restaurant dedicated entirely to oatmeal and despaired that Toronto would ever be able to match that. Imagine how many people need to love—like, really love—oatmeal for that to work. Does Toronto even have that many people?

It's cliched to feel that despair, of course. Comparing Toronto and New York is a fool's errand, and it will make us feel bad. New York is older by about 150 years, and there are more people living there by a factor of four. Toronto has a reputation for being staid, even in our own country—if you want to party, go to Montreal; if you want to make money, go to Calgary—and our municipal government has been mired in scandal and pointless in-fighting for the last half-decade. So, you know: not the same.

But being in New York is to breathe in the air of potential. Take, for example, the High Line park. The former rail-shipping corridor, abandoned as the trucking sector took over, was denounced as an eyesore and some residents lobbied to tear it down. Others, figuring it might make a cool park, banded together and become the Friends of the High Line, a group that eventually convinced the corridor's owners to donate it to the city, and that got architects and engineers on board to design the new park way. Now, the High Line is walked by over five million people every year. It's a marvel of weathered wood and native plants, of scenic overlooks and gently burbling fountains. The condos that overlook the park sell for about two million each, and I'm sure those original disgruntled residents have come around.

It's so frustrating to live in a place where municipal creativity is squelched. Look at the food truck fiasco, which bans trucks from operating within 50 meters of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Instead of creating a little artisan food hub, the city has effectively told vendors that they're only welcome in wastelands. (Compare this to upscale LA neighbour Abbot Kinney, which invites the trucks in as part of its monthly First Friday street festival, during which the surrounding restaurants also report an uptick in business. It's almost like the two things might be related.) Part of the Gardiner Expressway are literally falling on people as they drive it—why not create a High Line analogue for our very own? I love the museums and the weirdo art venues and the pop-up galleries, but we lack this vision for ourselves as a city that can Get Shit Done.

Part of this is that we're spread out, and the growth downtown (where I live) has been mostly private. The city's skyline hasn't been transformed by cool new parks or even interesting office buildings. It's been mostly same-old condos, each one pretty much like its neighbour. The promised Section 37 developments have been milquetoast, and the city itself has been so swept up in the transit folder that little else has been discussed. Our brand remains one of soulless glass towers and a few precious, and mostly upscale, arts scenes. We're so fractured: a city of BIAs and east-vs-west mentalities, of our downtown getting down on the suburbs for election results, and the suburbs throwing shade at the core for stalling on subways. We're messy, and not in a fun, energetic, city-that-never-sleeps way. We're not the party girl; we're the friend who fell asleep in the cab on the way home.

Walking through New York last weekend, the critical mass of the city wasn't overwhelming. It felt natural and right. I felt springy and at home. And coming back to Toronto, seeing this city—our city—shining in the distance, I know that we can do better. We can wake up, shake ourselves off, and start walking.